Critics say a proposal to elect the Howard County Board of Education by districts rather than at-large would cause its members to prioritize the needs of their constituents above those of the school system as a whole. But members of school boards that are currently elected by district say that the balance they strike between local and broader interests serves all of their counties' students.
Districted board members have relationships with the communities they represent, and therefore understand how school system policies will impact those communities, said Jansen Robinson, a districted member of the Harford County Board of Education. "Having that voice, having someone that speaks from a micro level about a macro issue — I think that's important."
The Harford County school board is made up of six members elected by county council district and three appointed by the governor from the county at-large.
"But when we all sit at the table, we sit at the table with our unique perspectives and hammer out policies that benefit the entire school district," Robinson said. "To the extent that we can have a representative voice from each community who is uniquely tied to a community — that's not a bad thing. That's a good thing."
Howard County's school board members, all seven of whom serve at-large, live in three of the county's five councilmanic districts.
As public concern about the school board's responsiveness and accountability grows, Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Democrat representing District 13, is sponsoring a bill that would require five of the board's members to be elected by councilmanic district and two by voters countywide. If the General Assembly passes the bill this year, the changes would take effect in the 2018 election cycle.
Five of Howard County's school board members, as well as the superintendent and several administrators, say that the bill would hurt the school system because it would remove the board's accountability to all county students.
"Our constituents are every single resident, every single student in Howard County. We come to understand, to appreciate, to support every district in the county," member Ellen Flynn Giles said at a meeting in November. "I would regret not being responsible to every single person in Howard County."
Carolyn Boston, vice chairwoman of the Prince George's County Board of Education, said she entertained a similar concern. "But I have not seen any evidence to that effect," she added. "We make decisions based on what's best for the whole county."
Since 2013, the Prince George's school board has followed a governance structure consisting of nine members elected by school district and four members appointed at-large by the county executive.
"The elected board members are definitely going to try to represent their districts on certain issues when they come before the board," Boston said. "They feel more responsive to their communities because they're the ones who actually elected them. But a lot of times when we make decisions as a whole board, we talk about how it affects the whole county. We put those things behind us and concentrate on what's best for the system."
"I think that, by and large, the board members in Prince George's County have been doing well at both representing their districts and being able to see the big picture," said the board's appointed chairman, Segun Eubanks. "It absolutely can happen that folks get [parochial]. Particularly on incredibly sensitive issues around things like boundary changes, school consolidations or closings — those types of things that are very difficult politically — and districts have to take a big picture perspective of the issue. That can be difficult and challenging for people who represent a certain geographic constituency."
But having a school board with district and at-large representatives mitigates this challenge, Eubanks said.
"There are so many countywide decisions that need to be made, that having that broader perspective ... is critical to be able to take a broader view of the issues at hand," he said. "But you lose that sense of discrete community when you are all at-large. There's the feeling that no one represents us, that if you represent everybody, you don't represent communities."
Montgomery County's hybrid school board has a safeguard against parochialism, member Mike Durso said, in that its five districted members are elected by voters countywide. Candidates need only live in the district from which they are running.
In this system, Durso said, all areas of the county are represented, which he said is important. Yet, countywide elections prevent Montgomery's districted board members from prioritizing the needs of their individual district over those of the entire county.
"You'd like to think that people would see the bigger picture," Durso said. "But if I'm only elected by a certain district, I think it would only be logical to spend more time and attention on that district."
Steve Bounds, director of legal and policy services for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said that he has heard and understands arguments for and against election by district. But Bounds, who once was chairman of the Howard County school board, does not place too much importance on the method of electing a board, calling it "just a preference."
"After working with hundreds and hundreds of school boards from across the state, I have never seen any behavior that indicates that they are not acting in the best interest of kids in the entire county," Bounds said.