A commission appointed by County Executive Ken Ulman to recommend a way to make the school board more diverse appears to have gotten a lot right, but not all.
The panel, which will present its proposal on Monday, voted this week to propose a system in which five of the seven board members would be elected by districts corresponding to existing County Council districts and two would be appointed.
Having the county executive choose board members is where the commission, headed by former state schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick, went wrong. Taking any board seat out of the hands of voters is a bad idea.
Election by council district makes a lot of sense, and should go a long way toward making the board more diverse in its racial and ethnic makeup. While no Howard council district has a "minority majority," at least two of them can claim significant minority populations.
More importantly, electing board members by district will ensure all the county's geographic areas fair representation. The board now in office — formed under the current system of electing all members countywide — includes no member from Columbia, the county's population center, or from the Route 1 corridor, the area hit hardest by school crowding.
Greater geographic diversity on the board would also increase the chances of bringing a greater diversity of thought, another very important kind of diversity to have on a decision-making body. A board member who lives in a duplex in Elkridge is bound to have a different perspective from one from a single-family home in Glenwood, a condo in Columbia or a townhouse in Jessup. Having each of those perspectives would be valuable.
The continuity inherent in using the council districts as the boundaries for prospective school board members is a voter-friendly approach that would minimize confusion. However, there are just five council districts. Since 2007, the school board has had seven positions. Political reality, however, makes it unlikely that the board will go back to five. So the question, then, becomes how the other two members would be determined.
The commission will propose that they be appointed. Such a move would be anti-democratic and would tend to promote cronyism. It would give the county executive too much power while taking power out of the hands of voters.
Better that the two seats be elected at-large. In addition to keeping the voters in charge, this would serve as a reasonable concession to those who believe the current system, with each board member looking out for all the schools, is the best approach.
Handing these two seats to anyone other than the electorate, though, would be a step backward.