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Elected school board bills advance in House and Senate, but not with unified voice

Challenge still seen with opposition from school system, Kamenetz

By Jon Meoli, jmeoli@tribune.com

4:33 PM EDT, March 13, 2012

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The Baltimore County House and Senate delegations have each passed versions of a bill that would make at least part of county's school board an elected body.

But with just under a month to go before the 2012 General Assembly session adjourns, plenty of steps remain to reconcile the two versions of the bill.

"This is the first time that a bill (like this) has passed the delegation," said state Sen. Bobby Zirkin, who represents the 11th District and co-sponsored the senate version of the legislation.

"Both the house and senate delegation have spoken that we want change," Zirkin said. "We're going to do the best we can, but it's progress. It's a big, big step forward."

When it was first introduced and cross-filed in both the House and Senate, the elected school board bill called for a 10-member board, with one member elected every four years from nine newly-created school board districts, and a 10th member who would be the student representative.

With a pair of amendments added — one staggering the terms so that five members would be elected at a time, and another to lower the annual pay from $3,000 to $100 — the house delegation voted 11-8 in favor.

But in the Senate, the only version of the bill that could pass includes an amendment turning the fully-elected board into a hybrid board — with some members elected, others appointed.

"There were some people that had reservations (about a fully-elected board)," said state Sen. Jim Brochin, who represents the 42nd District. "For me, I always liked the hybrid better than the fully-elected. I was going to vote for the fully elected anyway, but I think the hybrid has better checks and balances."

But the Senate version has other differences as well. Under the Senate version, the school board would have seven elected members — one from each councilmanic district, four members appointed by the governor, and a student member.

The election and appointment of members would be staggered to allow for "continuity of service."

Reconciling the House and Senate versions remains a task for both houses, and both plans will face resistance.

The school board, as well as County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, have opposed the bills. With Superintendent Joe Hairston retiring at the end of the school year, the board has expressed concerns that a worthy candidate to replace him could be scared away by uncertainty surrounding the board that hired him.

Both Zirkin and Brochin said the tradition of "local courtesy" — in which legislators normally bow to the wishes of the local delegations on bills that only affect the jurisdiction requesting it — may not carry the day.

Kamenetz went to Annapolis last month to speak before the Senate's Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee to testify against the bill, and according to Zirkin, the county executive's efforts haven't stopped there.

"The county executive has been personally lobbying to make sure the bills die, which I think is unfortunate," Zirkin said. "(He's going) right to the standing chairs as well, which is quite frankly very inappropriate. It's against legislative protocol. I've never seen, in my years down here, a county executive who has tried to undermine the delegations in that way."

Should the bill make it through both standing committees — Education, Health and Environmental Affairs in the senate and Ways and Means in the house — a conference committee between the two legislative bodies would be charged with reconciling the differences between the bills.

Del. Bill Frank of District 42 said there's a "general consensus" that a hybrid approach could work on the house side. Personally, he believes "the status quo is unacceptable."

Del. Steve Lafferty, who also represents District 42, said he still prefers a fully-elected board, but, "I think it's time for change. If hybrid is the best choice among the senate and house, then that's a step forward."