The Howard County Board of Education Study Commission decided Monday, Sept. 19 that the school board should have five members elected by district and two members appointed by the county executive, according to commission chairwoman Nancy Grasmick, former state superintendent of schools.
The recommendation to move away from electing at-large (county-wide) school board members was aimed at addressing the lack of racial and geographic diversity on the nonpartisan board. The five board districts, the panel recommended, should be the same as the five County Council districts.
"The election by councilmanic district would drive us to geographical diversity and the appointment piece would ensure kind of a cultural diversity," commission member Kevin Doyle said.
Brian Meshkin, an Asian American, is the only minority member of the board now, and none of the seven members reside in Columbia or Elkridge.
County Executive Ken Ulman formed the commission in August to study the various models used throughout Maryland and recommend one that would better foster diversity. A majority of the commission's nine members believe the hybrid model is the best way to guarantee that.
"The ideas put forth (by the commission) are certainly ideas that I support," Ulman said Tuesday, Sept. 20.
The only other Maryland jurisdiction to use a hybrid model of elected and appointed school board members is Harford County. Caroline County will move from an all-appointed board to a hybrid board in 2012.
Despite the support, a few of the commission members are unhappy with the quick decision to support the hybrid model.
"I would have liked to have lain these models side by side and compared them," Paul Lemle said. "There are things that didn't get enough legitimate consideration."
For example, he said, the commission didn't give much consideration to Montgomery County's model, in which voters elect its seven school board members county wide, two for at-large seats and five for district seats. That model, Lemle explained, could satisfy the need for geographic diversity while not taking away power from the voters.
Grasmick, meanwhile, said the commission weighed the pros and cons of each model.
"It's been a very thoughtful process," she said.
One of the factors the commission considered in moving away from the at-large elections, Grasmick said, is how difficult it is to run a county-wide campaign.
State must approve
Changes to the school board structure have to be made by state lawmakers.
Del. Frank Turner, a Columbia Democrat and longtime advocate of more diversity on the school board, said he plans to draft a bill reflecting the commission's recommendation.
By having the commission issue a recommendation to him by Sept. 26, Ulman said he is hoping the General Assembly will consider any changes during its special session in October so that changes can take effect in time for the 2012 election. Three school board members terms end in 2012.
But the special session is being called so state lawmakers can vote on a congressional redistricting plan, and it is unclear whether the General Assembly will take up any other bills.
"I plan to move ahead with it as quickly as I can, and I hope the leadership will take the bill up," Turner said. "I don't know for sure if they will or not."
Ulman said communication between the leadership and the delegation "indicates that there is an openness to consider bills having nexus with the upcoming election."
Howard County Delegation Chairman Del. Guy Guzzone, an ex-officio member of the commission who did not have a say in the recommendation, said if Turner drafts a bill, the delegation will hold a public hearing on the bill and discuss it. If the delegation were to vote not to support the bill, Turner said he would not circumvent their decision and introduce the bill on his own.
The current Howard County Board of Education voted Sept. 8 to endorse the current seven-member, nonpartisan, at-large structure. At its annual legislative breakfast Sept. 15, the board gave members of the delegation copies of that testimony.
"I guess we'll just see how this goes through in terms of the legislative process," board Chairwoman Janet Siddiqui said after learning of the commission's recommendation. "Personally, I'm not sure district voting is the model for public education elections in Howard County."
During the study process, the commission heard from several residents who thought the commission did not have enough time to make a fair recommendation. Lemle agreed the process was rushed.
"The commission may have spent 10 hours together, maybe 12," he said.
But Grasmick said the commission "felt we had adequate time to do what our charge indicated. Our charge was to recommend a system that would address the racial and ethnic and geographical concerns."
The commission plans to hold a final meeting Monday, Sept. 26 at 7 p.m., at the George Howard building in Ellicott City, Grasmick said, to discuss other recommendations, such as increasing board members' compensation and other ways to encourage people to run for the school board.