Howard school board voices opposition to hybrid model

Howard County school board members have agreed that they need to voice stronger opposition to a bill that would retool the seven-member, at-large, elected body to one with five members elected by district and two appointees.

The bill, which requires legislative approval, will be discussed Tuesday at a public hearing. If passed during a special session this month, the legislation would take effect before the Jan. 11 school board primary filing deadline.

Board Chairman Janet Siddiqui plans to testify at the hearing, and she asked board members this week for suggestions on rewording her previous testimony. Board member Brian Meshkin urged Siddiqui and fellow members to "make our feelings known more strongly."

"There are so many presumptions behind this legislation that it is offensive," said Meshkin, who suggested that one flaw is the assumption that there's a link between racial representation on the board and student achievement.

The hybrid school board model was recommended by the School Board Study Commission created in August by County Executive Ken Ulman, who said he sought to address concerns by some county residents that the board needed more racial and geographic diversity.

During her testimony before the commission, Siddiqui pointed out that the board had gone from appointed to elected in the 1970s and county residents subsequently chose to uphold the elected format. Several years ago, two seats were added to the board.

Meshkin said he believes county residents who testified before the commission in support of the hybrid model weren't necessarily advocating for appointed members.

"What they were testifying in favor of was, 'We need to do something about the achievement gap, and we think that by having an African-American appointed on the school board that's somehow going to make a difference,'" Meshkin said. "I think we should also need to talk about the advances we have made in closing the achievement gap compared to other school systems and the measures they are further exploring and how that continues to be a priority."

Board member Sandra French questioned language in the bill calling for a technical change that would allow measures to be passed with a four-vote majority if a student board member is not eligible to vote or not present.

"That is disturbing," French said. "Were there students involved in [the commission's discussions]? Was there any public discussion? I just find this whole thing very offensive."

Board member Cynthia Vaillancourt said the legislation lacks "internal consistency."

"If the argument is that districts will provide geographic distribution and equity, OK; then why do we need appointed seats?" she said. "And I am very fearful that if there are two designated appointed seats that are going to be designated for minority candidates, there are people in our county who will not vote for a minority candidate who does take the time and effort to run, because they will say, 'That's not a problem. That seat for that representation is taken care of.'"

The possible changes to the board makeup come at a time when the board has begun the process of replacing Superintendent Sydney Cousin, who will step down next year, and has requested that the state board of education remove fellow member Allen Dyer, who has been accused by the board of, among other things, repeatedly filing lawsuits and breaching confidentiality requirements.

During a news conference last week announcing the bill, Ulman said the board's internal strife was among the reasons he believed that "something different" should be considered regarding its makeup.

When asked about Ulman's comments, Siddiqui said, "Despite our differences, we're still getting the work of the board accomplished."

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