Howard County Executive Ken Ulman

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said the lack of diversity on the school board is a "very important issue." (File Photo / July 26, 2011)

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman plans to appoint an advisory panel to study how to address the lack of diversity on the seven-member, nonpartisan Board of Education.

"We're definitely going to be putting together a group to study this very soon," Ulman said Tuesday, July 26.

Ulman's comments came one day after hearing about the issue at his annual public forum, held at the North Laurel Community Center.

"The citizens in this county deserve to have a board that is representative … including geographically, socioeconomically, culturally and racially," Columbia resident Jacqueline Scott said. Two other speakers raised the same concern.

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None of the seven board members are from Columbia or Elkridge, and none are black or Hispanic; one member, Brian Meshkin, is half-Asian.

"I think you bring up a very important issue," Ulman told the three residents at the hearing.

With different ways to form a school board — by election or appointment, at large or by district, or by some combination of those approaches — the struggle is "how to make sure it is as reflective as possible of the county population," he said.

Just last year, Howard became a majority minority school system, meaning for the first time minority students outnumbered white students.

Immediately after the forum, Ulman told reporters he is "leaning heavily" toward setting up an advisory panel, made up of citizens, educators and former school board members, to look at the different models and see what would work best in Howard.

The next day, he told the Howard County Times he definitely will set up the panel, hopefully before the General Assembly's special session this fall. Any changes to the structure of the school board must be approved by the General Assembly.

Columbia Democrat Del. Guy Guzzone, chairman of the Howard County Delegation, said he thinks forming such a task force is "the right thing to do.

"I've gotten a few e-mails on these issues recently," he said. "I think there's a budding interest in this idea."

If any change to the school board structure is merited, Guzzone said, the delegation would discuss the issue and draft a bill. What the change would be and when it would take effect would depend on how the bill is drafted.

A 'bubbling issue'

Howard school board members are elected at large (county-wide) for four-year terms. Four seats are voted on during gubernatorial elections and three during presidential elections.

Ulman said lack of diversity on the board "has really been a bubbling issue" since the November 2010 general election.

Four school board seats were up for grabs in that election. Larry Cohen, the board's only Columbia member at the time, and Patrician Gordon, its only black member besides the student member, decided not to run.

Ellicott City incumbents Frank Aquino and Sandra French were re-elected. The three members who were not up for re-election in 2010 but will be in 2012 are Allen Dyer of Ellicott City, Ellen Giles of Scaggsville and Janet Siddiqui of Clarksville.

Newly elected board members Meshkin and Cindy Vaillancourt are from Fulton and Clarksville, respectively.

Ulman said he is not wedded to any particular solution to the board's lack of diversity.