At least one option for restructuring the Howard County school board appears to be off the table.

Not one member of the Howard County Board of Education Study Commission expressed support for an all-appointed board at their meeting Thursday, Sept. 8, at the Columbia Gateway building, which they spent discussing the pros and cons of the different school board structures used in Maryland.

"I don't think anyone wants to move away from giving everyone the ability to vote," commission member Chaunfayta Hightower said.

Residents who testified at the commission's public hearing Monday, Sept. 12, at the George Howard building, agreed.

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"That would be, in my opinion, an anti-democratic … step backward," Columbia resident Ken Stevens said.

But while the nine commission members and the roughly 25 people who testified at the hearing all support having at least some elected school board members, they differed on which specific model is the best for Howard.

County Executive Ken Ulman formed the commission last month to examine board structures and gave the panel until Sept. 26 to recommend one that will better foster diversity on the seven-member, nonpartisan board. Any recommended structural changes would have to be approved by the Maryland General Assembly.

Currently, the school board members are all elected at-large (county wide). Commission member Paul Lemle said he supports keeping the model because it makes members "more responsive and more representative."

Many residents, including the seven current school board members, agree that the at-large model is the best option. Board of Education Chairwoman Janet Siddiqui expressed that sentiment on behalf of the board, although most other members gave personal testimony with different reasons for their support.

"We are equally responsible for every school, not just those in our district," board member Frank Aquino said. "I would not want to see parochial-minded board members serving our very public minded school system."

In response to the argument that running a county-wide, nonpartisan election is challenging, Aquino noted that "every elected member has risen to the challenge."

He also noted that most school board candidates are not successful on their first try. Of the seven current members, only Ellen Giles and Brian Meshkin were elected in their first try.

In his testimony, Meshkin criticized the need for the commission, calling it the "county executive's intention to impose diversity through political appointment instead of popular vote."

He said the citizens of Howard County should be trusted to vote "on the content of a candidate's character and not the color of that candidate's skin."

In lieu of restructuring the board, Meshkin suggested other moves that he believes would encourage more candidates to run, such as increasing board members' compensation and instituting term limits.

Board member Allen Dyer, meanwhile, said the commission should keep the at-large election structure but look at alternative vote counting systems and submitted 280 pages of research to that effect.

"The current winner-take-all counting system results in an unintended but real barrier," he said.

Former board members Diane Mikulis and Sue Buswell also testified in support of keeping the at-large election structure.

"I don't see a need for change," said Buswell, who served as both an appointed and elected member of the board (board members were appointed until 1974). "A board member should be selected on the basis of experience and passion for education, not on a basis of cultural or geographical diversity."

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