Patricia Gordon, former school board member

Former school board member Patricia Gordon believes using districts to elect members is not a good idea. (Photo by Matt Roth / January 22, 2008)

Residents who testified this week at a meeting of the Howard County Board of Education Study Commission — the first opportunity for the public to speak on the politically sensitive subject — differed on how best to structure the school board.

But they agreed that choosing a model should not be taken lightly.

"I would urge caution here; this is a huge project," said Carole Fisher, campaign manager for former school board member Patricia Gordon. Noting that the commission has to make a recommendation by Sept. 26 to County Executive Ken Ulman, she said the decision-making is being rushed.

Fisher was one of six people to testify at the Aug. 22 meeting.

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Concerned about the lack of racial and geographic diversity on the school board, which has no black members and no Columbia residents, Ulman formed the commission earlier this month to study the pros and cons of the various school board structures and to recommend a model that would foster diversity.

The seven members of Howard's nonpartisan Board of Education are elected at large (county-wide). Any recommended changes would have to be approved by the Maryland General Assembly.

In working for Gordon, Fisher said she saw firsthand how difficult it is to run for the position. One of the challenges, she said, is lack of interest and participation from the community.

"We would go to some forums where there were more candidates than people in the audience," Fisher said.

Gordon, the most recent black member of the school board, also testified before the commission, challenging the notion that any change is needed.

She listed several accomplishments of the school system, including the "gradual" progress made in closing the achievement gap. Given Howard's success, she said, "one wonders why such drastic reorganization is being proposed."

Gordon said she opposes election by district because it will create "a parochial system" with board members only focusing on the schools in their district.

"It may result in many one-issue candidates," she added.

Not everyone agreed. Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, said he supported the district model.

"We know for a fact that racial minorities don't fare well in Howard County under the current system," he said.

Given the history of few minorities ever being elected at large, Howell added, a mixed model (with some members elected at large and some by district) is also unfair.

Howell conceded at least one flaw to electing members by district: It takes away an opportunity for entry-level politicians to get experience running for county-wide office.

No support for appointed board

The idea of appointing school board members was also discussed at this week's meeting, but no one spoke favorably of it.

"An appointed board, in my opinion, I think would be too political — if not in the beginning, in the long term," said Marcelino Bedolla, who lost In the school board primary in 2010.

Paul Spause, who said he has experience with campaigns having unsuccessfully run twice for Congress, agreed that voters' rights should not be taken away through a school board restructuring.