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Howard school board opposes switch on its selection process

Commission is studying the makeup of the elected, at-large board

By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

7:43 PM EDT, September 15, 2011

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The Howard County school system, widely regarded as among the best in the nation, could be in for two major, and perhaps unprecedented, changes regarding its elected board of education.

On Monday night, school board members voiced opposition to switching from an elected, at-large selection process to one that is appointed or elected by district. The group testified before a board study commission formed by County Executive Ken Ulman to examine the issue after some county residents contended that there is a lack of geographic and racial diversity on the board.

"Our current board represents divergent perspectives and a range of philosophical positions," said board chair Janet Siddiqui. "However, we have come to consensus on several points. We believe that board of education members should continue to be elected through nonpartisan, countywide elections. We also agree that diversity is one of the school system's greatest strengths.

"Educating an increasingly diverse student population requires that we all understand cultural differences and have the skills necessary to effectively educate children and engage families from a variety of backgrounds and experiences."

First-year school board member Brian Meshkin vehemently opposed the forming of the commission. "As citizens of Howard County we are blessed to live in one of the safest, most affluent, most educated communities in the history of human civilization," said Meshkin. "Howard County is not great because of its government or its schools. Howard County is great because of its people.

"Our government has plentiful resources, and our schools are good because [of] our taxpayers and the families our students come from," Meshkin added. "It's silly to think that anyone, including the county executive, could believe that government knows better than the people it serves."

In 1972, Howard County residents voted to change from an appointed school board to an elected one; the first election took place in 1974. Howard County election director Guy Mickley said Wednesday that he knows of no governing body in the county that has gone from being elected to appointed.

Ulman has given the panel until Sept. 26 to recommend a means to foster diversity on the seven-member, nonpartisan board.

"From what I am hearing, I believe consensus is building that changes are needed to make sure our school system stays on the path to excellence," he said.

County officials said that the school board study commission has two more meetings, Sept. 19 and 26, during which the commission is expected to sign off on its recommendations. Both are open to the public.

The board's opposition to such a move comes at a time when it is attempting to have the state school board oust fellow member Allen Dyer, having accused him of, among other things, breaching confidentiality agreements.

It is believed that if Dyer is ousted, he would be the first elected board member in the state to be removed. The case was transferred to the Office of Administrative Hearings on July 13, and Dyer filed a motion to dismiss the case. Administrative law judge Douglas Koteen set a motion-to-dismiss hearing for Sept. 27 and said that a decision will come no later than Oct. 27.

State school board officials said that if Dyer or the local board contests the administrative law judge's decision, the case could go before the state school board for further consideration. If that decision were contested, the case could then go to Circuit Court.

Dyer's term on the board ends next year, but he says he plans to run for re-election. The school board primary election is scheduled for April, with the general election in the fall, meaning Dyer could be campaigning for a new term even as he is fighting his removal from the board.

But Dyer nevertheless agreed with fellow board members that the board should be selected by countywide election. However, he did express concern at whether the current electoral system hinders some prospective candidates.

"Unlike some of my fellow board members," Dyer said, "I am under the opinion that the current, winner-take-all counting system results in an unintended but real barrier to representation of the rich diversity of Howard County. At the very least, I do believe that the current, winner-take-all voting system results in voter dilution for a number of minority groups."

Dyer recommended that the commission consider such alternatives as choice voting, in which candidates are ranked by the voters, or cumulative voting, in which voters can spread their votes as they see fit when choosing a group of candidates vying for several seats. In cumulative voting, for example, voters can give each candidate one vote, give all their votes to one candidate or give more to some than others.

Former board of education candidate Leslie Kornreich of Hanover advocated voting by district. She lives in a part of the county where residents have complained about having no representation on the board.

"Any candidate for the board of education, most of whom run on a shoestring budget, must cover over 250 square miles to get their name out throughout the county," Kornreich said. "The cost to cover so much territory is prohibitive and discourages a number of diverse, qualified candidates from running at all. It would cost less to run in a smaller district than countywide, thereby encouraging a more diverse pool of candidates to run in the first place."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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