By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun
9:24 AM EST, January 13, 2013
A nonbinding referendum on whether residents want an elected county school board and elimination of the county's Orphans Court are among Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold's legislative priorities for this General Assembly session.
"We should give the voters the right to have a direct say in who should oversee this 53 percent of the county budget," Leopold said of school system funding, hitting what has been a hot-button issue in the county for more than a decade.
Leopold outlined his agenda Friday to the county's General Assembly delegation, giving legislators a mix of items affecting only the county and statewide legislative ideas, and drawing a mixed reception on his wish list.
The makeup of the Anne Arundel County Board of Education — whether members should be appointed the governor or elected by popular vote, along with the appointment process itself — has long been debated in the county .
In 2007, legislators created a hybrid that includes gubernatorial appointments, with those appointees facing a retention vote. A commission forwards names of its top choices to the governor, and voters have a yes-or-no vote on whether the appointee remains in place. Complaints that appointees are not responsive to voters have remained.
Leopold is proposing a 2014 straw ballot to gauge interest in a fully elected board. He said the results at the polls would give legislators a sense of what voters want, which he speculated is an elected school board.
Past moves for an elected board have come close to getting the nod from the county's delegation, he said.
Del. Theodore J. Sophocleus of Linthicum, a District 32 Democrat, who has expressed opposition to an elected board, was among those who questioned the straw ballot idea.
And District 31 Del. Steven R. Schuh, of Gibson Island, a likely Republican candidate for county executive in two years, expects to reintroduce his bill from last year to add two elected members to the board now composed of eight appointees and one student.
Meanwhile, calling the part-time three-judge Orphans Court "an anachronism," Leopold said he was seeking a constitutional amendment that would transfer Orphans Court duties to the county's Circuit Court, similar to the practice in Montgomery and Harford counties.
Orphans Court judges deal with disputes over wills and estates.
Leopold said eliminating the Orphans Court would be free up about half of its $121,400 budget.
The proposal raised eyebrows around the room. District 33 Republican Cathy Vitale, a lawyer who practices in that court, said it moves fast in contrast to Montgomery County, where she's been waiting nine months for a court hearing.
A proposed constitutional amendment, if approved by legislators, would be put to voters.
Regarding other issues, Leopold, who noted that funding for mental health services has dwindled, proposed applying some of the state revenue from gambling to school security and mental health programs, both for students and parents.
"The tragic shooting in Connecticut has focused the need for a multifaceted approach for security" in schools, he said. "The Education Trust Fund could serve as a source of funding for both the security and mental health funding."
While the county's high schools and 11 of its 19 middle schools have police resource officers on their campuses, Leopold said he'd like to add more in middle schools and add security equipment.
Among mental health programs he hoped could grow, he said, "I'd like to enhance the middle-school parenting program which I initiated at Anne Arundel Community College."
Among his other ideas for the session is to allow construction funding for public charter schools to come from a school system's capital budget. Current law includes operating costs but not capital, he said. The proposal is controversial, as charter schools have opponents who contend that other school system needs aren't met.
Members of the county's House delegation indicated this week that they want to ensure that the county obtains what they called its "fair share" of school construction funding. The growing county has a mix of aging schools, facilities with crowded classrooms or portable classrooms, and newer schools. The county school board sets priorities for the allocation of construction funds.
Early this past week, Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed a total of $336 million for aiding school construction and upgrades across the state, though the General Assembly can increase or decrease the amount as it parcels out the money.
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun