Accountability in Balto. Co.

Our view: Electing some school board members while appointing others could prove the best of all possible compromises

December 28, 2010

One can hardly blame Baltimore County lawmakers for believing the county's school system is unresponsive to public concerns. The superintendent's recent handling of the conflict-of-interest dispute involving AIM (Articulated Instruction Module, a grading system) and his refusal to even discuss the matter with them or the state attorney general's office can't be ignored.

Nor was it the first time that Superintendent Joseph A. Hairston and his often-supportive board of education have crossed swords with the general public and the county's elected leaders. Disputes over where to build a new Towson area elementary school and the mishandling of ventilation woes at a renovated middle school in Timonium are still fresh in the public's memory, too. Others are now battling the district over how to handle overcrowding at Hampton Elementary School, which was predicted 10 years ago but not well prepared for.

Those incidents have given new life to an old idea — change the board from an all-appointed panel to having some or all elected to 4-year terms, as a majority of Maryland counties currently do. Elected members would be accountable to voters who could toss out those who performed their jobs poorly, or at least the theory goes.

The danger, of course, is that an all-elected board brings with it all the perils of politics. Because candidates would have to raise funds and publicly campaign for office with speeches and media ads, the board might be populated less by thoughtful parents, business leaders and educators and more by people with ambition for higher office.

That, in turn, could boost political causes with narrow but intense support. Teacher unions, contractors and other special interest groups could emerge with greater clout because those organizations have the money to donate to candidates.

But while that's the risk of an all-elected board, there is a potential compromise available: Create a hybrid board with half elected members and half appointed ones. That's what Sens. Bobby A. Zirkin and James Brochin have proposed, and the idea has merit.

Under their plan, the composition of the board would gradually shift from 12 appointees to six appointees and seven elected members, one from each council district. Harford County recently moved to a hybrid board (six elected, three appointed) without apparent problems.

The advantage of the hybrid system is that it balances the desire for accountability against the potential hazards of politics. Voters would have a greater say but not too much clout. For example, if county residents fail to elect a minority to the board, a governor could ensure one or more of his appointees brought needed diversity.

Newly-elected County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who expressed frustration with the school system's lack of accountability during the campaign, has yet to weigh in on the measure, but he's unlikely to oppose reform. He and others may have their own ideas of the ideal way to do that (giving local officials greater say in appointments, perhaps) but for now, the hybrid approach appears to be gaining momentum.

No form of governance is perfect — just ask residents of other counties. Public school boards have no control over the funding of schools, for instance, so the buck really never stops there. But at least if some members were elected, Baltimore County residents would know there was somebody on the board who answered to them, and that would be far better than the status quo.

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