State lawmakers want a greater role in choosing the next leader of the Baltimore city school district, and want to give city voters some say in the makeup of the school board.
Amid growing criticism of the city's appointed school board and calls for the ouster of schools CEO Gregory Thornton, the General Assembly approved legislation this week that would overhaul the process by which school leadership is selected.
The bill would make two lawmakers nonvoting participants in choosing the CEO, and expand the school board from nine members to 11.
The two new board members would be elected by city voters. Baltimore's is the last school board in the state to be composed entirely of appointed members.
Aides to Gov. Larry Hogan say he has not decided whether to sign the legislation, allow it to become law without his signature, or veto it.
The bill reflects a 12-year effort by city and state lawmakers to make the school district's governing body, they say, more representative of and accountable to city residents.
Currently, the nine members of the board are appointed by the mayor and the governor.
In recent months community leaders and state lawmakers have urged the board to fire Thornton. Del. Cheryl D. Glenn, who has sponsored legislation to create a partially elected school board for more than a decade, was "ecstatic" the legislation finally won support.
"This is a great day for Baltimore city schools because we will finally have people on the school board who will be accountable to the people," the Baltimore Democrat said. "It changes the whole paradigm of how the school board does its business."
Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, called the bill the "crown jewel of the legislative session," and said it would democratize the board.
"It has been a long time coming," she said in a statement. She said it was "necessary for the public to have a say in the policy that governs our schools."
The legislation won unanimous support in the House of Delegates, and cleared the General Assembly with last-minute amendments in the Senate.
Sen. Joan Carter Conway won inclusion of an amendment that would give a delegate and a senator seats on the committee that recommends the next Baltimore schools CEO.
Conway, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Senate committee that oversees education, said lawmakers felt blindsided the last time the board chose a schools chief.
"We figured we should be in the loop because the state gives 75 percent of the money" in the district budget, she said.
She said school officials routinely turn to state lawmakers for help in times of fiscal crisis.
While it is not unusual for political and community leaders to vet superintendent candidates informally, the legal requirement that state lawmakers actively participate in the process is unprecedented in Maryland.
Lawmakers introduced similar legislation this year that would have given them a strong role in appointing and confirming a new state superintendent. That bill was unsuccessful.
The city school board sets policy, oversees the school system's budget and hires and fires the superintendent.
The board has long opposed electing members, and any legislative measure that infringed upon its autonomy.
Marnell A. Cooper, the board's chairman, said the board has changed its position to support the addition of two elected members. He noted that every other school system in the state has a partially or fully elected school board.
"We have heard the public for a number of years express their desire to have some composition of the board that is elected, and we listened," he said.
Cooper said the board embraced lawmakers' input on a new superintendent.
"They can bring statewide perspective to the conversation," he said.
The bill would require that lawmakers be included in all meetings and discussions during the selection process but serve only as advisory, non-voting members.
The board would vote on the final candidate.
Conway said she didn't expect the legislation to impede the board from searching for a new superintendent.
Cooper declined to say whether the board was actively seeking a new superintendent. He has supported Thornton.
Thornton has defended his tenure.
"My plans and commitment to the district have not changed," he said in a statement last month, when lawmakers called for his ouster. "I will continue the work that is needed to ensure that every student in this city is given an excellent and equitable education that prepares them for college and career."
The Senate president and House speaker would select lawmakers who would serve on the committee.
Conway said she expects that either she or Sen. Bill Ferguson, another Baltimore Democrat, would be appointed as the Senate representative in the superintendent selection process.
Ferguson, who called for Thornton's resignation on the Senate floor during the session that ended this week, said the legislation would help stabilize the city school system.
"The bill attempts to settle an ongoing topic of concern," he said, "and reflects a step toward rebuilding the trust between communities and the Baltimore city school board."
Ferguson said he initially had concerns that the bill could violate conditions of a 1996 consent decree that established the current governance and funding structure for the city school system, including the jointly appointed school board.
He added an amendment that required that parties in the lawsuit be notified of the changes.
The attorney general's office opined that the consent decree does not prohibit the legislature from making changes to the school board, but that parties involved could challenge it in court.
Bebe Verdery, the education reform director for the ACLU of Maryland, led the lawsuit that produced the consent decree. She said it was unlikely the organization would challenge the legislation because adding two elected members does not "fundamentally change the governing structure of an independent school board."
But she added: "The ACLU continues to have the right legally to challenge changes that would adversely affect city children's interests and the consent decree provisions ordered by the court."