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Bill would add executive-appointed member to Baltimore County school board, change voting rules

A bill seeking to give the Baltimore County Executive more influence on the school board by adding a county-appointed member has passed the Senate and heads to the House this month.

Sponsored by Sen. Charles Sydnor, a Democrat, the legislation seeks to add a 13th member to the 12-member Baltimore County Board of Education, appointed by the county executive, and would change voting procedures for the school board to prevent the the deadlocks that have occurred the past two times the board has elected leadership.

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Adding a county executive-appointed member of the school board would give the executive “direct and clear understanding of the issues and needs within the county school system,” said Sharon Blake, a Baltimore County resident and the former president of Baltimore City’s teacher union, during committee meeting earlier this year.

It makes more sense to add a county-appointed member than another Governor-selected member, Sydnor said. Currently, the Baltimore County board includes seven elected members and four others appointed by the governor as well as a student member.

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The Senate bill would require the Baltimore County School Board Nominating Commission to recommend nominees to the county for appointment.

School board chair Makeda Scott did not respond to requests for comment, and the school system has neither indicated support nor opposition to the bill.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr., a former teacher and student member of the education board, said he supports the “new effort to expand the make-up of the board and help uphold the integrity of future elections.”

In January, Olszewski appointed Jennifer Lynch, former principal of Hillcrest Elementary School in Catonsville, as Baltimore County’s Director of Educational Partnership — that position serves as a liaison between county government and the school system.

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Adding a county-appointed member was tacked on as an amendment to a bill that originally sought only to change how the chair and vice chair are elected. That bill was cross-filed in the House by Del. Eric Ebersole, but he has not added Sydnor’s amendment to the House version.

Ebersole said he hasn’t taken a position on Sydnor’s amendment.

Few of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions allow locally-appointed school board members. Nearby, only Baltimore City and Prince George’s County have such a system.

The education board was reshaped in 2018 when it became a hybrid board of elected and state-appointed members, allowing voters to choose their representatives in the county’s seven school districts.

Since then, Sydnor said, the school board has become “balkanized,” with member advocating for their school districts instead of the school system.

There’s “a bit of reform that has to be done,” he said. “I think the whole process might need to be reexamined.”

The bill, which passed unanimously in the Senate, would change voting procedures for the chair and vice chair positions by requiring a majority vote of the members currently serving instead of relying on a majority vote of the total number of positions, regardless of whether or not those positions are vacant.

During a Senate Education, Health and Environment committee hearing in late January, Sydnor told committee members the impetus of the bill stemmed from the school board’s unusual 2019 chairman election between Kathleen Causey, the chair at the time, and Cheryl Pasteur.

Under current law, a majority of seats on the board — in this case, seven — is required to elect the chair and vice chair. Neither candidate for chair could secure the seven votes needed to declare victory in 2019, meaning Causey remained in the position with just five votes from the 12-member board.

Pasteur received the remaining six votes, with one seat on the panel vacant at the time following the death of school board member and former county executive Roger Hayden two months prior.

“I didn’t think that was right,” Sydnor said. “If you won the majority of the people then you should be the chair.”

Adding a 13th member would prevent that deadlock, Sydnor told the committee. Syndnor has said the bill should not be mischaracterized as a school takeover, as it was when a similar bill about board voting failed last year.

Del. Kathy Szeliga, a Baltimore County Republican, who opposed the voting rules legislation brought last year, said “it was clear last year it was more of a personal thing,” proposed “in the middle of the actual situation” of the controversial chair election.

“We’re removed from that now — this year we’re setting policy,” she said.

Szeliga intends to support the House version of the bill, but opposed Sydnor’s amendment.

“I don’t think we need another member — if someone wants to add another member, we need full conversations with county residents [and the] county executive,” which did not occur, she said.

Sydnor’s bill is among three proposals introduced this session aimed at reforming the school board — the other two bills, which would have given the county inspector general more discretionary oversight of the school system and given county lawmakers more power over the school system’s budget, have been withdrawn.

The bills follow a difficult year for the school system that has strained relations between school administration and county leaders, who have been frustrated by a lack of transparency by school system administration regarding a ransomware attack that continues to affect school system networks.

Sydnor’s proposal will be heard by the House Ways and Means committee March 24.

Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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