Lawmakers Push For Some Elected Balto. Co. School Board Seats

… Senator plans legislation for hybrid board with appointed, elected spots …

By Raven L. Hill, The Baltimore Sun

8:53 PM EST, January 9, 2011

The fate of Baltimore County’s appointed school board is again in question, as debate over the selection process is expected to arise during this year’s General Assembly session.

State Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a longtime advocate, is pushing a measure that would create a hybrid board of appointed and elected members. The measure narrowly failed last session.

In Baltimore County, one of the few districts in the state where all school board members are picked by the governor, there has been ongoing debate over whether an elected or appointed board would be most effective.

Supporters argue that an elected board would make district leadership more accountable to the public, while opponents say that an elected board would politicize the system and place the interests of adults over children.

The overwhelming majority of Maryland’s 24 school boards are elected. Voters in Harford and Caroline counties recently approved changing their school boards to hybrids, a form of governance that is rarely found among the nation’s approximately 15,000 school boards — fewer than 5 percent, according to the National School Boards Association.

The hybrid structure — used in Camden, N.J., and St. Louis among other cities — is typically found in urban or large school districts, sometimes due to a state or mayoral takeover, said Linda Embrey, spokeswoman for the association.

The Maryland Association of Boards of Education does not take a position on whether elected or appointed boards are more effective. But some arguments that favor one form over the other — that one has better oversight of the superintendent or the other is more responsive to local concerns — aren’t necessarily true, said Stephen C. Bounds, the organization’s director of legal and policy services.

“Anytime a board doesn’t do what you want them to do … whoever’s not getting their way tends to criticize the makeup and accountability of the board,” Bounds said. “There’s no magic formula.”

The focus “needs to be about what’s going to produce better education policy in those counties,” said Marc Kilmer, a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. “Sometimes school reforms aren’t popular with voters. Sometimes it’s good to have a school board that’s insulated from politics.”

Zirkin said he’s encouraged by growing sentiment to change the county school board, but that it’s unclear whether the measure will finally pass this time.

“It is a big change,” he said. “Big changes sometimes take a little longer to get through.”

Parent Laurie Taylor Mitchell, whose son attends Loch Raven High School, is among those hoping for a change.

“Neither the superintendent or the school board is directly accountable to the public. This lack of accountability in my view has led to major problems in working on school issues,” said Mitchell, citing school crowding, climate control and controversy over a grading software system.

Zirkin’s measure is also supported by State Sen. Jim Brochin and County Council members Vicki Almond and David Marks. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has expressed concern in the past that elected school boards will not be effective unless the school system has its own fiscal responsibilities. Under the current system, the county executive must approve the school budget.

Marks said he does have some worries about a hybrid board, such as whether elected members would represent certain districts or serve at-large.

“You could have a situation where five to seven are elected at-large — then you’d have no flavor for the local neighborhoods,” he said.

Ultimately, those on both sides of the issue agreed that more local control is needed in selecting the 13-member board.

Kilmer, the researcher, said the current method is “flawed” and should rest with the county executive. Others have suggested creating a nominating committee to send a list of potential members to the governor.

Mary-Margaret O’Hare, a current board member who does not support an elected or hybrid board, said that kind of committee would need to reflect the diversity of the county, not just from a racial, ethnic and geographic perspective, but taking teachers and parents’ interests along with the business and philanthropic communities into account.

“Somebody has to look out for the children who don’t have a voice,” O’Hare said.

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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