Accord reached on county school board bill

Parents who have fought for years to get an elected school board in Baltimore County have won key support for a compromise measure that is given a good chance of passage in the General Assembly.

The county's House and Senate delegations voted unanimously Thursday to endorse creation of a "hybrid" board consisting of seven elected and four appointed members, plus a student, starting in 2018. Supporters of the change have overcome objections by the county executive and believe they have also won over a committee chairwoman who had previously blocked the legislation.

The proposal still faces votes in the House and Senate, but proponents are optimistic.

"There are many good and decent people on the board currently, but there's no substitute for people who are directly accountable to the voters — and accountable to those who are most directly affected by the educational system," said Del. John A. Olszewski Jr., a Dundalk Democrat who is chairman of the county's House delegation.

Some county residents have been lobbying for a decade to change the composition of the board, whose 11 adult members currently are appointed by the governor based on the recommendation of the county executive. Critics argue the board often hasn't been responsive to their concerns about issues such as school schedules and the lack of air conditioning in classrooms.

"I think this is a positive and natural step for the county," said Yara Cheikh, a Towson parent with four children in county schools who has pressed for years for an elected board. "It's more democratic, and I think there are safeguards that promote diversity so the school board looks like what the county looks like."

Eighty-six percent of school boards in Maryland have at least some elected members, according to Cheikh, who is on the education committee of the Baltimore County League of Women Voters. The hybrid selection process outlined in the compromise bill should make the school board more accountable to parents, students, teachers and others with a stake in public education, Cheikh said. But it also should help ensure the board makeup is more diverse, she said.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said this week that he — like previous county executives — continues to support an all-appointed board. However, he said, there are "well-meaning people" on all sides of the issue, and compromises have moved the bill in a "positive direction" by pushing elections to a year when state and local races are on the ballot. Having a school board election in 2018 also coincides with the end of an expected second and final four-year term for Kamenetz.

Olszewski said several lawmakers had wanted to get a hybrid school board sooner, but it was necessary to find a plan agreeable to all parties.

Del. Stephen W. Lafferty, vice chairman of the county House delegation, said the compromise combined elements of his bill and one sponsored by Del. Adrienne Jones, an influential African-American member of House Speaker Michael E. Busch's leadership team.

Lafferty, a Towson Democrat, said he knew of no opposition on the House side.

"This is I think our best opportunity to date," Lafferty said. "It's a good feeling that we now may make the step forward we've been working on."

The final remaining hurdle may be in the Senate, where the hybrid-board bill finally received a hearing Wednesday before the education committee and its chairwoman, Baltimore City Democrat Joan Carter Conway.

The hearing came after weeks of behind-the-scenes — and occasionally open — contention. In past years, Conway was a formidable foe of moves toward an elected school board out of concerns that it would result in a lack of African-American and other minority representation.

Several weeks ago, the legislation appeared dead after a clash between Conway and Baltimore County's Democratic senators, who had voted 7-1 to support the bill, at a party caucus meeting. According to several Senate Democrats, the exchange culminated in an angry tirade by Conway during which she threatened to kill the bill.

Conway said Wednesday she had been "direct" in warning county senators that she wouldn't move the legislation if she received the type of racially abusive calls she received from some proponents when the bill was last debated in 2012.

"It upset my staff terribly," she said.

At Wednesday's hearings, Conway told proponents "I'm not opposed to an elected school board," but said she's concerned election would not result in a diverse board – in part because of the way the county's district lines are drawn.

Conway, who is African-American, said she's not just concerned about black representation. She also noted the lack of female members on an 11-seat board with eight members who are white males.

On Thursday, she said she had let county lawmakers know she favored language in a House version of the proposal, and they agreed to include it in the compromise measure. That bill called for a 17-member nominating commission to recommend the appointed board members, with representatives on the commission chosen by teachers and principals unions, the NAACP, the county executive and other stakeholders.

Conway said she would schedule a committee vote on the Senate bill once she has reviewed the revisions to see they address her concerns.

Sen. James Brochin, a north Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the bill, told the committee Wednesday that the legislation is about "checks and balances." He said the current appointed board sees its role as simply to hire and fire the superintendent but not to provide active oversight. He pointed to Tuesday night's board approval of a $205 million contract proposed by Superintendent Dallas Dance to supply some 150,000 laptop computers to the county's students and teachers.

"It was literally a rubber stamp vote," Brochin said.

At the committee hearing, a parade of parents told senators they had found the appointed board members to be unresponsive and unwilling to raise their concerns about some of Dance's policies.

Cheikh said she believes the legislation finally is moving this year in part because parents were more organized and vocal, both in Baltimore County and in Annapolis.

"Everyone wants to improve student achievement," she said, "and this is going to hold the board of education to that in a way that will hold them accountable."

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