Communities struggle with representation on school boards

When temperatures in the classrooms of Ridgely Middle School reached the high 90s, Julie Sugar and other parents invited Baltimore County school board members to check out the problem. The board members didn't come — but local lawmakers did.

"That's when we realized that our school board was not responsive or accountable to the public," said Sugar, who once headed the middle school's PTA and is now president of the Loch Raven High School PTA. "And it made us realize that they did not have to be responsive or accountable to the public because the public didn't put them on the school board."

Frustrations with the board "reached a tipping point," and Sugar now is among parents and state lawmakers who are pushing to add elected members to the county's all-appointed school board. Residents in other localities in the region also have pushed to change the selection of school boards — which approve budgets and craft education policy — but they've found no easy answer.

In Baltimore County, members of a panel set up to examine the school board makeup there recently told residents that they could not come up with an answer. In Howard County, a hearing on a proposed change lasted for hours, a day before the plan was withdrawn. And in Baltimore City, a state delegate is proposing to strip the school board of governing power, suggesting that the system might be better off if it was controlled by the mayor like other city agencies.

Despite debates about accountability, local politics, and minority representation, experts say there's no data showing that students fare better under elected or appointed systems.

"My take on this is that what's clear is that there's no perfect system," said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who in August created a school board study commission and had pushed to add appointed members.

Of the state's 24 school boards, 18 are fully elected, according to the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. Two counties — Caroline and Harford — have decided to shift to "hybrid" models with a combination of elected and appointed members. Four boards are fully appointed.

In Wicomico County, where the board is appointed, County Council members recently voted to put a non-binding referendum on next year's ballot, asking voters whether the board should be elected or appointed. State lawmakers must approve changes to a school board's makeup.

Proponents of elected boards say they offer accountability because voters can potentially oust those they don't like. They also argue that they are more connected to their communities because anyone could run for the seats — members wouldn't need to be political insiders with connections to whoever is making appointments.

Others say appointees are more likely to be qualified to deal with complex issues. Appointed members may also be better at making tough decisions — about school closures, for example — because they don't face the pressures of winning a campaign. And some say that people will run for the local board only as a stepping stone to a higher political position.

Debates about how school boards are selected have come up repeatedly, but those who advocate for a different approach frequently meet with passionate opposition.

A day after a public hearing in Howard County earlier this month, Del. Frank Turner decided to withdraw a plan that would have added some appointed members to that county's all-elected board, and changed other seats to be elected by district.

The county had developed the proposal in response to concerns that the school board didn't reflect the geographic and racial diversity of the school system; it failed amid objections that appointed leadership might be less responsive to the public.

Different approaches

Anne Arundel County school board member Andrew Pruski, who also serves as supervisor of assessment in the department of research, accountability and assessment for Baltimore County Public Schools, said the success of a board depends on the people on it.

"I know people talk about what's best in terms of a structure," Pruski added, "and I don't think anybody has an answer because I believe it depends on the people who are in at the time and the leadership. If you have folks who are willing to work together and have a vision and care about what's going forward, then that does make a difference."

Nationwide, 95 percent of school boards are elected, according to the National School Boards Association, which doesn't take a position on elected versus appointed boards.

"There's research, but there's been no data that one is better than the other in terms of student achievement, which is the major goal," said Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the association.

The lack of hard evidence is why the Teachers Association of Baltimore County hasn't taken a position on the issue, said the group's president, Abby Beytin. The governor now appoints the county's board, and some lawmakers and residents have been pushing to add elected members, but others worry that minorities would be less likely to have a voice on an elected board.

"If I could see clearly that a change was really going to make things better, I would have jumped on that bandwagon ages ago," Beytin said. "I don't see a magic bullet that's going to say, if we do this, we will get a better school board."

Accountability concerns

People who want change often mention accountability, but they have different ideas about how to get it.

Baltimore County School Board President Lawrence Schmidt said some criticism of the board has been fair, which is why he made changes such as moving public comment periods to the beginning of meetings.

"But I'm not sure there's a relationship between some of the criticism and the method of selection," he said." You can have an appointed board or an elected board be secretive and not be responsive to the public. "

For Ulman, the issue is also tied to local finances.

"Sixty-two percent of my operating budget goes to the board of education," Ulman said. "I think people would say, 'Gee, you ought to have an appointment or two when 62 percent of your budget goes to something that essentially you have no control over whatsoever or very little influence.'"

Administrative control

Del. Keiffer Mitchell, a Baltimore Democrat, plans to introduce a bill in January that would make the Baltimore City school board an advisory body, resuming an uphill battle he fought as a City Council member and a mayoral candidate. The governor and mayor now jointly appoint the members.

Mitchell said that when the mayor oversees large agencies such as the police department, it's reasonable to ask why he or she shouldn't also manage the schools.

"Education is the most important civic function a city provides," he said.

Proponents of abolishing boards often argue that "perhaps that way, you could better integrate that system with other agencies," said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. Then, if the mayor has a big idea — like an anti-poverty initiative — all agencies could work with the schools to achieve it.

Large cities that have tried mayoral takeover have seen some increased efficiency, said Thomas Alsbury, a professor of educational leadership at Seattle Pacific University who researches school governance.

But "in the cities that have tried it, it has not been the success that they'd hoped for," said Alsbury, who supports elected school boards, calling them "a uniquely American institution" closely tied to people's ideas about democracy and local control.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said that's why he has repeatedly introduced legislation to add elected members to the county's school board.

"In Baltimore County, our citizens are deprived of a basic democratic principle," he said. "They are deprived of the right to participate in the election process. For me, that is the sole factor… A few people will try to make this a referendum on the school system or a referendum on the superintendent, or try to tie this to other factors."

Carl Smith, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, points out that the composition of Maryland's schools boards "always been fluid," changing as local issues arise.

For instance, in 2002, infighting between board members and conflict with the superintendent led Prince George's County to return to an appointed board after having an elected one.

"It is and always will be a process of change," Smith said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Joe Burris and researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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