Too many cooks spoil the school board

Our view: Baltimore's school board selection process has worked well for the city

now's no time to change it

August 17, 2011

The resolution passed by the Baltimore City Council this week calling on state legislators to give the council more say in choosing school board members might be justified if there were any evidence the current process isn't working. Since 1997, city school board members have been jointly appointed by the mayor and governor, and in recent years, at least, that arrangement has allowed the city's schools to make rapid progress under the leadership of schools CEO Andrés Alonso. Now is no time to introduce changes to the process that are unlikely to improve the system yet hold out the potential for gumming things up. Our feeling is, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Baltimore's school board selection process is the unique result of a 1997 lawsuit brought by the ACLU that led to the state assuming a larger share of funding city schools. In exchange for increased state funding, the governor was given the power to jointly appoint school board members with the mayor, while all candidates had to be approved by the State Board of Education. That represented a fundamental shift from the old way of doing things; previously, school board members were nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the council. But you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks the schools were better off under that system. By contrast, the current process has generally worked well, especially given that the governor traditionally has deferred to the mayor's choice of appointees.

In every other jurisdiction in Maryland, school boards are either elected by the public or appointed by the governor. Both systems have advantages and disadvantages. Elected boards are often more responsive to parental and neighborhood concerns, but they can also turn dysfunctional when board members use their posts to score political points or as steppingstones to higher office. Howard County's board, where one member has sued his colleagues over alleged violations of open meetings and public records rules — and the other members voted to recommend he be removed — is an example of how badly things can go when elected board members can't work together.

Appointed boards, by contrast, are in principle free to devote all their attention to developing policy rather than angling for the next election. But that's no guarantee of effective governance either. Witness the case of Baltimore County, where state legislators recently have been getting an earful from parents and county officials who complain their appointed school board lacks openness and transparency and fails to hold top school officials accountable. County residents are now contemplating changes that would allow at least some board members to be chosen through elections.

Such examples suggest that no system of school governance is perfect. But in the grand scheme of things, Baltimore's school board has functioned remarkably smoothly, especially given the potential for mischief inherent in any system that depends on both the city and state governments to cooperate closely in order to get anything done. If nothing else, making school board appointments part of the City Council's purview would slow things down, especially if the state lawmakers who are helping foot the bill for Baltimore's schools demanded a similar right to hold hearings on the matter. It's hard enough to recruit the kind of highly qualified people with deep managerial experience that the state board requires to oversee the schools; the prospect of being grilled for hours by city and state lawmakers would surely turn many of these volunteers off.

Moreover, even in the days when Baltimore mayors could appoint whomever they wished to the school board, they usually took care to sound out the City Council's feelings beforehand. And if a council member had a particular candidate for the board in mind, he or she could usually make that known to the mayor through informal channels; as far as we can determine, the council has never vetoed an executive appointment.

If Baltimore's appointed board clearly wasn't fulfilling its responsibilities to the community, if it became obvious the schools were failing to improve the quality of classroom instruction, or if board members simply got so sidetracked by personality disputes and political posturing that they couldn't work together effectively, it might make sense to look to changing the process by which they are selected.

But that's not what's happening. The schools are making steady progress (though not without occasional setbacks); the city signed a landmark contract with its teachers that put Baltimore at the forefront of reform efforts nationwide; the board has managed to retain the services of an outstanding schools CEO who is committed to the long haul; and the governor and the mayor are working together to hold on to the gains that have been made.

The City Council already plays an important role in approving the school budget and advocating for more recreation programs and after-school activities for Baltimore's young people. It should stick to what it does best. Injecting itself into the board selection process at this point would just be putting too many cooks in the kitchen.

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