Balto. Co. 'hybrid' school board proponents optimistic change could come this session

The protracted effort to add elected representation to Baltimore County's school board continued Thursday, Jan. 31 at a meeting of the county's Senate delegation, and despite some opposition, proponents for the bill remain optimistic change could come this year.

"It's not a bill that doesn't have controversy," District 11 Sen. Bobby Zirkin said Thursday after the meeting. "I just think it's the right thing to do. It's on principle."

Under the terms of the proposed bill, six members would be elected from among school board districts that would be drawn by the County Council. Five additional members would be appointed by the governor and ensure diversity. The 12th member would be the student member.

The governor currently appoints the entire school board with input from the county executive.

During the delegation's discussion, Sen. Delores Kelley, who opposes the bill, posed several questions about its implementation, should the bill pass during this year's legislative session.

Kelley, who represents District 10, suggested guidelines within the legislation for the County Council as it draws up the new school board districts.

The bill now only stipulates that the populations in each district cannot vary by more than 3 percent. But Kelley suggested guidance be given on issues, such as diversity, as well.

Additionally, Kelley raised issues with the elections and integration of elected members.

The legislation states that the changes would go into effect in 2014, with members elected during the general election in November and taking office a month later.

Opponents of the bill also questioned the need for changing the composition of the school board, as concerns about responsiveness have dwindled under Superintendent S. Dallas Dance.

"I think the superintendent is doing a really good job, and I like a lot of the members of the school board, but there's a basic principle of democracy that we deny our citizens," Zirkin said. "It doesn't matter to me who the members are. We teach our students that democracy is the best form of government, and yet on this issue … somehow democracy gets denied."

But the delegation said it will consider the impact of selecting members during primary elections, and will also explore the possibility of staggering the addition of elected members in order to prevent wholesale changes on the board after the first election.

The bill was discussed before the Senate Education Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee last Thursday, Jan. 24 with testimony from Towson school advocate Laurie Taylor-Mitchell and county League of Women Voters Co-chair Judith Miller, among others.

During the hearing last week, Zirkin listed the Baltimore County Council, the League of Women Voters, Advocates for Baltimore County Schools and a portion of the county's NAACP as the bill's supporters before the Senate committee.

The committee also received a letter from County Executive Kevin Kamenetz opposing the bill.

Kamenetz, whose opposition has stalled the bill in the past, wrote that adding elected members "would disrupt a high achieving, smoothly running school system with a new superintendent and would open the door to potential politicization of the education of Baltimore County's children."

Kamenetz's opposition has been cited as the reason the bill never moved last year past the House Ways and Means Committee, which typically refuses to release local bills on which there is disagreement within the jurisdiction.

This year's edition of the House bill, sponsored by District 42 Del. Steve Lafferty, was read in committee on Monday, Jan. 28 and will be discussed at a committee hearing on Feb. 13 at 1 p.m.

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