Howard school board bill moves forward

Special to the Howard County Times

After weeks of discussion, Howard County's state delegation has reached an agreement on legislation that proposes to change the way the school board is elected.

Under the proposal, voters countywide would still elect all seven members to the Board of Education. But five of those seats would be tied to one of the county's councilmanic districts, while the two remaining at-large seats could be filled by any county resident.

Currently, all seven seats are at-large.

District-specific school board members would be elected beginning in 2020. The transition to a new board will begin in the 2018 general election, when four board seats are up for election. The top two vote-getters in the election would be designated as the board's at-large members and serve for a term of four years. The other two members elected would serve just two years to make room for district-specific members in 2020.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Maple Lawn Democrat who sponsored the measure, called it "a huge step for our county moving forward."

Del. Warren Miller, a west county Republican who has sponsored several school board reform bills, said the measure is a "needed change."

"In the current board, something's not right," he said. "We have failing schools, leaking roofs, audits. ... If someone can be held accountable versus everyone pointing fingers at each other, it's a needed change."

The bill has undergone multiple tweaks since the start of the General Assembly session. Atterbeary's initial proposal had each district-specific school board member elected solely by voters in their district.

That idea could not garner enough support to earn the delegation's endorsement.

Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, a Democrat who represents both Howard and Baltimore counties, said he was reluctant to limit voting to specific districts.

"Having school board members elected by councilmanic districts, to me, just more intertwined the political aspect of the offices, and I felt that an active group of people in a small area could influence the election," he said.

Kasemeyer said tying members, but not voters, to districts still accomplishes the goal of having each area of the county represented by someone on the board.

"There is going to be someone accountable," he said.

Others argued continuing to require school board members to run countywide preserves a higher hurdle to office, since candidates must raise more money to campaign across Howard.

Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Columbia Democrat, remembered running for council at the same time that Sandra French, a current school board member, was running for a seat on the board. Pendergrass won and French did not.

"You'd think the council would be a harder race to run, but it wasn't," Pendergrass said. "Change for change's sake is not necessarily for the best. I think if you want accountability, you have districts."

Pendergrass and Del. Bob Flanagan, an Ellicott City Republican, voted against the measure. Sen. Gail Bates, a Republican from western Howard County, was also opposed.

Bates and Flanagan had introduced their own legislation proposing to assemble public commissions that would draw school board districts. Both bills were withdrawn.

Flanagan said he was concerned the delegation's measure would lead to school board seats becoming more politicized.

"We're not making it easier for somebody to run," he said.

Bates tried to add language to the bill to ban sitting school board members from running for another public office, but a majority of the delegation voted it down.

Del. Terri Hill, a Columbia Democrat, said she understood concerns about the bill. But, she said, she had heard from dozens of constituents who wanted her to vote in favor of the change.

Del. Trent Kittleman, a west county Republican, was also torn. One of her goals for the legislation, to make it easier to run, was not accomplished, in her view. But the other goal — "to have an identifiable board that people could go to" — was.

Del. Frank Turner, a Columbia Democrat, said the bill represented progress: "We can move forward and if we need to revisit it, we can."

"If everybody is a little unhappy, then it's probably a good bill," he said.

The measure heads next to committees in the House and Senate, which will hold hearings on the proposal. Under the tradition of local courtesy, most county-specific legislation is approved without debate.

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