Editorial: Demise of school board bill seems like an opportunity lost

For those seeking change for Baltimore County Public Schools, this week is a case of a glass half full ... or half empty.

While the school system welcomes the school board's choice for a new leader beginning this summer, another opportunity for change was lost when the General Assembly failed to approve a school board model that would have included both elected and appointed members.

First, on April 10 the sitting board was scheduled to formally approve new superintendent S. Dallas Dance, a Virginia native who was previously the middle schools chief in Houston. He will replace Joe Hairston, whose formidable accomplishments were often over-shadowed by what many considered an aloof personal style.

Dance, who will be 31 when he takes office this summer, will be the youngest superintendent the county has ever had, a fact that has triggered some concerns. However, word from Houston is that he possesses charisma and fosters confidence.

A word of caution to our new superintendent — despite the unquestioned success of county schools over the past 12 years under Hairston, residents have often felt separated from the system, and felt it sometimes acted without accountability.

That brings us to the elected school board issue. Currently, the school board is appointed entirely by the governor, a system that has been the norm in Baltimore County, but is more uncommon elsewhere.

The idea of changing that system to at least a partially elected board had support in both the House and Senate this year — but a bill to implement that change died on the General Assembly session's last day. The proposal for a so-called "hybrid" board would have had six elected members and five members appointed by the governor. Because the number of elected members didn't match the seven councilmanic districts, the County Council would have drawn election districts in consultation with the school board.

The bill was hung up in the House Ways and Means Committee until the final hours of the session on Monday, then simply failed when time ran out before a full vote could be taken.

Part of its demise came, no doubt, due to the opposition of the measure by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

In testimony and in lobbying efforts, the executive contended that an all-elected school board would be vulnerable to shifting political winds, could present an adversarial relationship with the county on budget items and might also result in a lack of minority representation.

Maybe, but we tend to believe an all-appointed board can come up short in accountability and public access, and has the potential to fall under the whim of political machinations as easily as an elected board, particularly when appointments are made without public input.

That's why, for many, perhaps the lasting sense for this week will be one of missed opportunity — instead of a completely fresh start for a new superintendent and school board, we'll get a new chief, but not the potential for a new dynamic on the board.

Among Kamenetz's arguments against an elected board was that it would be bad timing to change its makeup while also getting a new superintendent.

Perhaps. We think it would have been the perfect time to implement changes in the schools' leadership that would have heightened the sense of ownership for those most profoundly afftected, county residents.

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