Residents who testified this week at a meeting of the Howard County Board of Education Study Commission — the first opportunity for the public to speak on the politically sensitive subject — differed on how best to structure the school board.
But they agreed that choosing a model should not be taken lightly.
"I would urge caution here; this is a huge project," said Carole Fisher, campaign manager for former school board member Patricia Gordon. Noting that the commission has to make a recommendation by Sept. 26 to County Executive Ken Ulman, she said the decision-making is being rushed.
Fisher was one of six people to testify at the Aug. 22 meeting.
Concerned about the lack of racial and geographic diversity on the school board, which has no black members and no Columbia residents, Ulman formed the commission earlier this month to study the pros and cons of the various school board structures and to recommend a model that would foster diversity.
The seven members of Howard's nonpartisan Board of Education are elected at large (county-wide). Any recommended changes would have to be approved by the Maryland General Assembly.
In working for Gordon, Fisher said she saw firsthand how difficult it is to run for the position. One of the challenges, she said, is lack of interest and participation from the community.
"We would go to some forums where there were more candidates than people in the audience," Fisher said.
Gordon, the most recent black member of the school board, also testified before the commission, challenging the notion that any change is needed.
She listed several accomplishments of the school system, including the "gradual" progress made in closing the achievement gap. Given Howard's success, she said, "one wonders why such drastic reorganization is being proposed."
Gordon said she opposes election by district because it will create "a parochial system" with board members only focusing on the schools in their district.
"It may result in many one-issue candidates," she added.
Not everyone agreed. Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, said he supported the district model.
"We know for a fact that racial minorities don't fare well in Howard County under the current system," he said.
Given the history of few minorities ever being elected at large, Howell added, a mixed model (with some members elected at large and some by district) is also unfair.
Howell conceded at least one flaw to electing members by district: It takes away an opportunity for entry-level politicians to get experience running for county-wide office.
No support for appointed board
The idea of appointing school board members was also discussed at this week's meeting, but no one spoke favorably of it.
"An appointed board, in my opinion, I think would be too political — if not in the beginning, in the long term," said Marcelino Bedolla, who lost In the school board primary in 2010.
Paul Spause, who said he has experience with campaigns having unsuccessfully run twice for Congress, agreed that voters' rights should not be taken away through a school board restructuring.
"Elected officials should not remove power from the electorate," he said.
Criticizing the district model as something that would create partisanship and dysfunction, Spause said he likes having multiple school board members who will listen to him. With offices that are elected by district, such as the County Council, state Senate and House of Delegates, elected officials outside of his district tend to disregard his opinion, he said.
In lieu of restructuring the board, Spause suggested the commission consider changing the way votes are tallied.
Voters now can vote for as many candidates as there are open seats (four in gubernatorial elections and three in presidential elections) and each vote is given equal weight. Spause recommended a rank order, so voters can give more weight to the candidates they like best.
Also at the meeting, county officials presented commission members with data on the county's population, broken down by race and council district.
Last year, Howard County became a minority-majority school system, meaning that minorities accounted for more than 50 percent of the student population. But only two of the five County Council districts — District 2, which includes parts of Elkridge and east Columbia, and District 3, which includes North Laurel, Savage and parts of east Columbia — have minority-majority populations, according to 2010 census data.
In all five council districts, the under-18 population has a higher percentage of minorities than the entire county population.
Officials also presented a map showing the residences of school board candidates, with distinguishing marks for successful versus unsuccessful candidates, from 1974 to 2010. Before 1974, school board members in Howard were appointed.
Address information for 21 of the 121 of the candidates was unavailable, so those candidates were not included on the map. But of the more than 15 candidates mapped as being from east Columbia or Elkridge, only one was successfully elected.
Other maps showed elementary and middle school districts with data on pass rates for standardized reading and math tests. In general, schools in more populated areas had lower pass rates.
Charted data on standardized test pass rates, broken down by grade, subject and race, showed that white students as a whole fared better than black and Hispanic students. Pass rates for Asian American students were on a par with pass rates for white students.
Despite all the data commission members were presented, they requested more information for their next meeting, scheduled for Monday, Aug. 29. The request included a breakdown by jurisdiction of how school board members are evaluated, how they are compensated and how their responsibilities vary if they are elected by district versus elected at large, among other data.
A public hearing is scheduled for Sept. 12.