For the first time in two decades, Baltimore’s mayor has sole authority over who sits on the city school board, and residents who want a say in shaping local education policy are being encouraged to join the board.
Applications for three open positions on the nine-member board are being accepted through Monday at the office of Mayor Catherine Pugh. Pugh won full control of school board appointments this year after the state legislature voted to end a longtime arrangement under which the city’s mayor and Maryland’s governor jointly selected members.
Pugh made taking back control of the board a priority of her legislative agenda after becoming mayor in December, saying it would provide her the leeway to fulfill her vision for the city school system.
She also said the circumstances that led to joint governance of the board no longer exist.
The city struck a deal with the state in 1997 designed to create more oversight over the troubled school system, which was struggling with low student test scores, funding and fiscal management issues, and concerns about poor accountability.
As part of the agreement, the school system received an additional $254 million in state funding over five years and then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke gave up full control of the board.
“That time has passed,” Pugh said. “We should go back to where we were.”
Now that Pugh has control, she’s looking for school board members who are “representative of people who live in the city and the population in our school system.”
That means applicants who are “futuristic in thinking, visionary in approach … and fiduciarily responsible,” she said. "My goal is to lift our children beyond what they possibly thought they could be."
The board currently consists of nine commissioners and a student member. A law passed last year will add two elected commissioners starting in 2022.
Board members are appointed to serve for staggered three-year terms ending on June 30, and outgoing board members remain until a successor is appointed. The mayor previously needed the governor’s approval to fill any vacancies or remove a board member from office.
Two school board members —Andrew Frank and Marnell Cooper — are serving terms that expired in June. Commissioner Tina Hike-Hubbard’s term ended in 2016.
A panel of community representatives will select candidates to be recommended to the mayor. Should Pugh choose not to appoint a member from that list, she must reconvene the group and ask it to submit additional names.
Board members must fit certain qualifications. For example, some must have business administration expertise, while others must be parents of city schools students or be knowledgeable about the education of children with disabilities.
Kenneth Wong, a professor at Brown University, has studied the impact that mayoral control over the school board has on the system. He said research shows this model often results in improved student performance.
Mayors, he said, more often understand the need to devote more resources and support to the lowest-performing schools. In Baltimore, most students continue to struggle on the Partnership for Assessments of Career and College Readiness, or PARCC, standardized tests. This year, only 15 percent of students passed the English test and 11.9 percent passed the math. Across the state, less than half passed the tests.
“Mayoral control overall creates the supportive conditions that allow teaching and learning to occur more effectively,” Wong said.
Having one clear center of power also pushes a mayor to be more transparent, he said.
“From now on,” Wong said, “the residents and voters of Baltimore will be able to actually hold the mayor ultimately accountable.”