A bill that would give Baltimore County an elected school board was held back from a vote Tuesday, Feb. 21, in a meeting of the county's Senate Delegation in Annapolis, but State Sen. Bobby Zirkin and Jim Brochin are optimistic that change is on the horizon.
"The County Executive (Kevin Kamenetz) is trying to put pressure on people, but eventually, whether it's now, next year, whenever," said Zirkin, a Democrat from District 11. "As you've seen around the world, you can't keep democracy back. Whether it's now or some other time, this is clearly extremely popular among our constituents."
Last week, Kamenetz came to Annapolis asking legislators not to pass the bill. In a hearing before the Senate's before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee, Kamenetz noted the ongoing search for a replacement for Superintendent Joe Hairston, who is retiring at the end of the school year, and said the board should remain appointed while that process is going forward.
Sen.J.B. Jennings, a Republican senator from District 7 who is co-sponsoring the bill, motioned to hold the bill back from a scheduled vote Tuesday because of ongoing questions he has heard.
But Zirkin said the reason for the holdup was Kamenetz, who the senator said is "having people call around because he wants to maintain his power base on the school board."
During last week's hearing, Kamenetz also said the bill, which would create nine school board districts from which members would be voted, was not well thought out.
In response, Zirkin said he thought the county executive's comments were "shocking" and "almost amusing."
"His arguments are ridiculous," Zirkin said. "It's always something. Last year, (it was) 'oh, we need to study this, let's have a task force.' Right now, it's 'oh, it's so challenging.' We've been having this conversation for five years, and it's always some excuse. Eventually, democratic principles will win out."
Brochin, the Democratic senator from Towson's 42nd District, believes "eventually" could be as soon as this year, though he's uncertain if senators want a fully elected board or a "hybrid," in which some members would be elected, others appointed.
This year's version of the school board reform bill calls for a fully elected board as opposed to a hybrid, which previous versions of the bill had considered. At last week's hearing, Zirkin said the change this year was at the insistence of the county's House delegation, and Brochin said they've "been pretty uncompromising."
"There's definitely the votes there to change the status quo," Brochin said. "The question is to what? The bigger question is if we pass a hybrid board — which is my preference because I like checks and balances — will the house cave and support a hybrid?"
'The land that time's forgotten'
Several other bills were held from a vote on Tuesday, including one that would send the county's ongoing debate over air conditioning in schools to a task force, and another that deals with liquor board reform.
The liquor board reform got particularly contentious between a representative from the beverage industry and the county administration, and Zirkin said such debates have been par for the course this session.
"We're one of the fraction of school systems around the country that doesn't have any democracy whatsoever, we criminalize work on Sundays, and now we're having massive fights on liquor bills," he said. "One senator described Baltimore County as the land that time's forgotten in this session, and it's true."
The Sunday reference comes from Zirkin's own bill that would legalize the sale of cars on Sunday in Baltimore County. Currently, car sales are prohibited in the county on Sundays, although some neighbor jurisdictions don't have that restriction.
"It's OK in Howard County," he said. "Apparently, that's not a crime, but if you're over the border in Catonsville, you're a criminal. It's literally a crime for someone to sell a car," Zirkin said.
"At the end of the day, it's not funny. It's embarrassing, actually, that people are describing Baltimore County that way."