Minorities express concerns about efforts to create hybrid school board

If bill passes, task force would review all options for changing board structure

March 20, 2011|By Raven L. Hill, The Baltimore Sun

For as long as there's been talk of changing the Baltimore County school board structure to partly elected, minority groups and residents have been concerned about losing representation on the 12-member panel.

Now, with a task force expected to convene in the near future to study the issue, they are expressing optimism that such concerns about school board diversity will be addressed.

Efforts to create a hybrid Board of Education, led by Sen. Bobby Zirkin, were defeated weeks ago when the county Senate delegation threw its support behind the task force bill sponsored by its chairwoman, Sen. Kathy Klausmeier. Zirkin has been working for years to add some elected members to the board that is appointed by the governor. He added a provision to the bill that would have required diversity to be a factor when making appointments.

The task force bill was approved by the Senate last week and is now in the House Ways and Means Committee. As proposed, the 13-member task force would make recommendations on board structure and method of making appointments.

The scenarios under consideration include maintaining an all-appointed board, moving to an all-elected board, implementing the hybrid board, allowing the county executive to make appointments or reviving a school board nominating committee. The task force would also recommend a timetable for phasing in changes.

The county branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has long been opposed to a hybrid school board, saying it would be difficult for more than one African-American candidate to get elected.

If the County Council — whose lone African-American member comes from a predominantly black district — is any indication, the number of black school board members would likely fall if the board were partly elected, said Patricia Cook Ferguson, president of the NAACP's Baltimore County branch.

"We're just doubtful there would be parity," Ferguson said.

Longtime Randallstown education activist Ella White Campbell agreed.

"There is no way in Baltimore County that you would get parity on that board if we went to an elected process," she said.

African-Americans account for more than half of the enrollment in the 104,000-student district and currently hold three seats on the 12-member school board. Eight African-Americans have served on the board in the past 12 years, but never more than three at a time, according to school system officials.

Current board President Earnest E. Hines, who is African-American, said he believes that minorities have been well-represented under appointed boards and that he understands the cause for concern. He said he believes that an appointed board is the best way to keep the focus on student achievement, but he welcomes the task force's findings.

"When you get a system that diverse and you have a mandate to educate all children to the best of their ability, you have to be focused on the students first and politics second," Hines said. "The task force is a good idea because it sheds light for the entire state. I don't believe there's a panacea."

Campbell said she hopes the task force will take a hard look at all options. For instance, a nominating committee could work under certain conditions, she said, "but if it's going to be an elite social club, it will never work."

The county League of Women Voters, which supports moving to a hybrid board, did not explore whether women would be better represented with one form of school board over another in its study of selection methods last year, said Betsy Sexton, co-president of the local branch.

However, members firmly believe that diversity should be a priority in any system, she said.

Criticisms of elected boards include that members' focus on getting re-elected might make them less likely to pursue politically dangerous policies.

The county Alliance of Black School Educators does not have an official position, but the group is aware of the differing views on diversity and politics, said Brian Morrison, the group's president and a history teacher at Western School of Technology and Environmental Science.

Many educators are wary of an elected or hybrid board, he said, fearing that adding more politics to the process would make it "very challenging, very difficult and could create issues that we don't necessarily need."

But "if it's going to be politicized we should be able to make sure that our voice can be heard," he said.

Morrison said he's also heard from a number of people who believe that it's a "new day" in the county and that white residents deserve more credit as voters, because "they, too, want the same things that African-Americans want for their children."

raven.hill@baltsun.com

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