School board study commission, Howard residents dislike all-appointed option

At least one option for restructuring the Howard County school board appears to be off the table.

Not one member of the Howard County Board of Education Study Commission expressed support for an all-appointed board at their meeting Thursday, Sept. 8, at the Columbia Gateway building, which they spent discussing the pros and cons of the different school board structures used in Maryland.

"I don't think anyone wants to move away from giving everyone the ability to vote," commission member Chaunfayta Hightower said.

Residents who testified at the commission's public hearing Monday, Sept. 12, at the George Howard building, agreed.

"That would be, in my opinion, an anti-democratic … step backward," Columbia resident Ken Stevens said.

But while the nine commission members and the roughly 25 people who testified at the hearing all support having at least some elected school board members, they differed on which specific model is the best for Howard.

County Executive Ken Ulman formed the commission last month to examine board structures and gave the panel until Sept. 26 to recommend one that will better foster diversity on the seven-member, nonpartisan board. Any recommended structural changes would have to be approved by the Maryland General Assembly.

Currently, the school board members are all elected at-large (county wide). Commission member Paul Lemle said he supports keeping the model because it makes members "more responsive and more representative."

Many residents, including the seven current school board members, agree that the at-large model is the best option. Board of Education Chairwoman Janet Siddiqui expressed that sentiment on behalf of the board, although most other members gave personal testimony with different reasons for their support.

"We are equally responsible for every school, not just those in our district," board member Frank Aquino said. "I would not want to see parochial-minded board members serving our very public minded school system."

In response to the argument that running a county-wide, nonpartisan election is challenging, Aquino noted that "every elected member has risen to the challenge."

He also noted that most school board candidates are not successful on their first try. Of the seven current members, only Ellen Giles and Brian Meshkin were elected in their first try.

In his testimony, Meshkin criticized the need for the commission, calling it the "county executive's intention to impose diversity through political appointment instead of popular vote."

He said the citizens of Howard County should be trusted to vote "on the content of a candidate's character and not the color of that candidate's skin."

In lieu of restructuring the board, Meshkin suggested other moves that he believes would encourage more candidates to run, such as increasing board members' compensation and instituting term limits.

Board member Allen Dyer, meanwhile, said the commission should keep the at-large election structure but look at alternative vote counting systems and submitted 280 pages of research to that effect.

"The current winner-take-all counting system results in an unintended but real barrier," he said.

Former board members Diane Mikulis and Sue Buswell also testified in support of keeping the at-large election structure.

"I don't see a need for change," said Buswell, who served as both an appointed and elected member of the board (board members were appointed until 1974). "A board member should be selected on the basis of experience and passion for education, not on a basis of cultural or geographical diversity."

Support for change

Though past and present board members didn't see the need for a change, several minorities who testified did.

"Diversity is not a bad word, and I think representation means everything," Myra Gomez, of Elkridge, said. "The school board members are doing a good job, but when a child looks up, he needs to see someone who looks like him."

Gomez did not support any particular solution, but others proposed structures they felt would better promote diversity.

Representatives from the African American Coalition of Howard County and the Howard County chapter of the NAACP supported election by district, which they said creates a better opportunity for both cultural and geographical diversity.

Del. Frank Turner, the only non-white member of the Howard County delegation, supported a hybrid board with two appointed members and five or more elected members.

"There needs to be a voice from the minority community that can speak up on certain issues," he said. "If we do nothing, we'll find ourselves back here four years from now having the same discussion, and I do not want that to happen."

Ellicott City resident Larry Walker, who unsuccessfully ran for school board in 2010, also voiced support for a hybrid model, with two appointed members and others elected by district. He also supports limiting board members to no more than three consecutive four-year terms.

Commission's thoughts

At its Sept. 8 meeting, the commission discussed the district and the hybrid models.

Electing board members by district, commission members said, would guarantee geographic diversity. But they also noted several disadvantages.

"You can have a Hispanic, an Asian and an African American, all of whom are really terrific, (running in the same district) and you can only elect one of them," member Kevin Doyle said.

Felicita Sola-Carter said districts would create more partisanship and would move the board away from "all-for-one-and-one-for-all" thinking.

"I still have an open mind on it, but I'm not sure the pros of districts outweigh the cons," she said.

A hybrid model with some appointed members is the only way to guarantee cultural diversity, the commission noted. But if they were to chose that model, members said they would want to define criteria for how appointed members are selected.

Lemle proposed ideas for improving the quality of the board that do not involve changing the board's structure. His suggestions included improving compensation, providing a stipend in cases of financial need, having the candidates names appear on the ballot in random order rather than alphabetically, and creating an internship for potential candidates.

But putting names on the ballot in random order would not work, said state Del. Guy Guzzone, an ex-officio commission member, because that involves changing a state law that would affect ballots in every Maryland jurisdiction.

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