Communities struggle with representation on school boards

No easy answers, no hard data on elected vs. appointed panels

October 29, 2011|By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

When temperatures in the classrooms of Ridgely Middle School reached the high 90s, Julie Sugar and other parents invited Baltimore County school board members to check out the problem. The board members didn't come — but local lawmakers did.

"That's when we realized that our school board was not responsive or accountable to the public," said Sugar, who once headed the middle school's PTA and is now president of the Loch Raven High School PTA. "And it made us realize that they did not have to be responsive or accountable to the public because the public didn't put them on the school board."

Frustrations with the board "reached a tipping point," and Sugar now is among parents and state lawmakers who are pushing to add elected members to the county's all-appointed school board. Residents in other localities in the region also have pushed to change the selection of school boards — which approve budgets and craft education policy — but they've found no easy answer.

In Baltimore County, members of a panel set up to examine the school board makeup there recently told residents that they could not come up with an answer. In Howard County, a hearing on a proposed change lasted for hours, a day before the plan was withdrawn. And in Baltimore City, a state delegate is proposing to strip the school board of governing power, suggesting that the system might be better off if it was controlled by the mayor like other city agencies.

Despite debates about accountability, local politics, and minority representation, experts say there's no data showing that students fare better under elected or appointed systems.

"My take on this is that what's clear is that there's no perfect system," said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who in August created a school board study commission and had pushed to add appointed members.

Of the state's 24 school boards, 18 are fully elected, according to the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. Two counties — Caroline and Harford — have decided to shift to "hybrid" models with a combination of elected and appointed members. Four boards are fully appointed.

In Wicomico County, where the board is appointed, County Council members recently voted to put a non-binding referendum on next year's ballot, asking voters whether the board should be elected or appointed. State lawmakers must approve changes to a school board's makeup.

Proponents of elected boards say they offer accountability because voters can potentially oust those they don't like. They also argue that they are more connected to their communities because anyone could run for the seats — members wouldn't need to be political insiders with connections to whoever is making appointments.

Others say appointees are more likely to be qualified to deal with complex issues. Appointed members may also be better at making tough decisions — about school closures, for example — because they don't face the pressures of winning a campaign. And some say that people will run for the local board only as a stepping stone to a higher political position.

Debates about how school boards are selected have come up repeatedly, but those who advocate for a different approach frequently meet with passionate opposition.

A day after a public hearing in Howard County earlier this month, Del. Frank Turner decided to withdraw a plan that would have added some appointed members to that county's all-elected board, and changed other seats to be elected by district.

The county had developed the proposal in response to concerns that the school board didn't reflect the geographic and racial diversity of the school system; it failed amid objections that appointed leadership might be less responsive to the public.

Different approaches

Anne Arundel County school board member Andrew Pruski, who also serves as supervisor of assessment in the department of research, accountability and assessment for Baltimore County Public Schools, said the success of a board depends on the people on it.

"I know people talk about what's best in terms of a structure," Pruski added, "and I don't think anybody has an answer because I believe it depends on the people who are in at the time and the leadership. If you have folks who are willing to work together and have a vision and care about what's going forward, then that does make a difference."

Nationwide, 95 percent of school boards are elected, according to the National School Boards Association, which doesn't take a position on elected versus appointed boards.

"There's research, but there's been no data that one is better than the other in terms of student achievement, which is the major goal," said Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the association.

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