For the first time, white students make up less than 50 percent of Howard County's 51,000-student school system, even as county voters chose four new school board members for a nearly all-white body charged with running the well-regarded system.
Howard's schools, like those in Baltimore, Montgomery and Charles counties, have been trending toward increasing diversity in classrooms for years. This academic year, white students made up 48.6 percent of total enrollment in the fall, according to an annual report. African-Americans were the next-largest group, with 20.6 percent, followed by Asians at 16 percent and Hispanics at 8.3 percent.
But the school board hasn't followed suit, despite expanding from five to seven members in 2006. Although Howard's school superintendent, Sydney L. Cousin, and chief financial officer, Ray Brown, are African-Americans, the current school board has no African-American members, and only one nonwhite member, newly elected Brian Meshkin, who is Asian-American with a father born in Iran. Patricia Gordon, a retired New York educator who became the first African-American board member in 15 years when she joined the formerly all-white body a decade ago, retired this year.
"We are missing an opportunity to reflect the diversity in our community," said the Rev. Robert A. Turner of St. John Baptist Church in Columbia, who is president of the African American Coalition of Howard County. "We have work to do," he said.
Larry Walker, another Columbia minister long active in school affairs, was the only black school board candidate this year. But after a promising third-place finish in the 11-candidate September primary that narrowed the field to eight, Walker finished last in the general election contest. It was unclear why.
"I think the fact that I did so well in the primary led a lot of people to assume I was going to be elected," said the 52-year-old Ellicott City resident and chief of staff of Columbia's Celebration Church. "My passion is to eliminate the achievement gap," he said. "I've watched the growth in the minority population for a long time, and I've watched the number of students who fall on the short side of that gap grow too."
Walker said that was a prime reason that he ran. "I think it's important that every aspect of our county [such as the school board] reflect our county," he said.
Marcelino Bedolla, a Columbia resident and retired Baltimore City teacher, ran for a board seat with the Howard teachers union's endorsement but lost in the September primary.
"I think there needs to be a Hispanic member and a black member," Bedolla said, still puzzling over his loss.
Gordon agreed that having a nearly all-white board isn't good, especially in a county that values racial diversity. Having integrated neighborhoods was a founding principal of Columbia, yet minorities are poorly represented on a range of governing bodies, from the all-white Columbia Association board of directors to elected county and state public officials. Howard's County Council and legislative delegations are also nearly all white, with one black state delegate and one black County Council member. Two blacks serve as part-time Orphans' Court judges, including one, Leslie Smith Turner, who was elected this year.
Former five-term County Councilman C. Vernon Gray is the rare minority who has won a high-profile countywide race. Gray, who is black, won his first council race in 1982 when the members were elected countywide. "I see us slipping back," he said.
Del Frank S. Turner, who is also African-American, sponsored a bill in 1999 to have school board members run by district instead of countywide in hopes of achieving more diversity, but that failed. "The alternative was to expand the number of members on the board," Turner said, but that hasn't helped much either.
"Losses like Larry's [Walker] do not encourage others to run for school board," he said. "In a county that celebrates diversity, we the citizens have a long way to go."
Lester K. Spence, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University who specializes in racial politics, said blacks are under-represented in leadership posts because as a group, they lack the organizational focus that, for example, political conservatives have built in winning school board and county-level offices.
"In the absence of black networks that both recognize the value of running people for office at the local level and actually have the ability to run and elect them, at best we'll have a few people run for these positions," he said. Many minority advocacy groups are nonpartisan and tax-exempt, so they can't openly advocate for a candidate.
Meanwhile, people of all races seem to agree that diversity on the school board is needed.
"It's not fine the way it is," said Sherman Howell, vice chairman of the African American Coalition. "It's not all right not to have a black member of the school board."