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Harford delegation’s effort to create all-elected school board fails, but county senators offer their own version

An amendment that would’ve changed the makeup of the Harford County Board of Education to a fully elected board failed at a meeting of the county’s delegates Thursday, but the county’s three senators have offered their own amendment.

The Senate legislation, discussed at the delegation meeting by Sen. Jason Gallion, would retain a hybrid board of six members elected by district and three appointed, but changing who would make the appointments. Currently, appointments are made by the governor; the senators’ amendment would have the Harford county executive and county council make the three appointments.

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“Our thought being, this brings decisions closer to a local level,” Gallion explained. “It would also require collaboration between the executive and legislative branches of county government. If you follow county council meetings, if people have a complaint about the school system or the school board, they go to county council meetings and that’s where they relay those things.”

Senate Bill 382 would also stagger when the elected and appointed members come into office, the original intent of the pre-filed bill. That was also the original intent of House Bill 283, which was cross-filed with SB382, before amendments were proposed to strike the majority of the House legislation and instead create a fully elected school board.

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A committee hearing on the Senate bill set for this month was canceled, Gallion said, as senators followed delegation discussions on the House version of the bill. The amended legislation will be heard in the Senate’s Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs committee on March 3.

“That gives us almost two weeks to get that out there if folks would like to sign up and testify on this,” Gallion said.

While the House delegation did not vote on supporting the Senate legislation, comments were generally positive after Gallion explained the details.

“It’s going get a public hearing and it’s to bring in local control to have local appointments,” Del. Mike Griffith said. “I think this is a great way to include the public, to hold the Board of Education accountable and reel in the local support.”

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Del. Rick Impallaria, who had proposed the changes to HB283 to create an all-elected school board, questioned giving the county executive so much power, since about 50% of the executive’s budget goes toward county schools and those two entities often butt heads on funding. Having three votes on the Board of Education that are “automatically his,” Impallaria argued, takes away the voting power of the public.

But Del. Lauren Arikan countered that the county council would also have input on the appointees. “It’s not just like some bully in the room is just going to throw three county executive people on [the school board.]”

County Executive Barry Glassman is supportive of the Senate amendment, according to county spokesperson Cindy Mumby.

Glassman, who as a state senator in 2009 was the lead sponsor on the bill that created the current hybrid model school board, supports more local control of the Board of Education and protections for diversity on the board, Mumby said. The Senate amendment addresses both of those things.

Prior to Gallion presenting the Senate’s proposal, the delegation discussed and voted on the proposed amendments to the House Bill to create a seven-member elected school board with its chair elected at-large. The vote ended in a 4-4 deadlock, with Republicans Impallaria and Susan McComas and Democrats Mary Ann Lisanti and Steve Johnson in favor, and Republicans Griffith, Arikan, Kathy Szeliga and delegation chair Teresa Reilly opposing.

Impallaria, who has been the most vocal advocate of an all-elected board of education, noted there are 19 fully elected school boards among Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions.

“I don’t know why anyone would think the citizens of Harford County aren’t capable of electing their own school board and need the help of a governor or county executive,” he argued.

McComas discussed a potential amendment that was similar to the Senate legislation, although it was unclear who would make appointments from the discussion. That amendment to the House bill never received a motion for approval during Thursday’s session.

“We should not deal with our bill and see what happens with the Senate Bill,” McComas said, prior to voting in favor of the amendment. “Let the Senate run with it and see what happens.”

Reasons to oppose the House bill amendment were varied. Szeliga continued to beat the drum that there was no opportunity for broad community input, since a committee hearing for the House version of the bill took place before the amendment was proposed.

Arikan opposed the idea of an at-large elected chair of the school board, fearing who would have the financial backing to run for such a seat.

“I can’t imagine how expensive a full countywide race would be to get this at-large member, and I’ve been trying to rack my brain for what groups could fund an at-large candidate. ... the teacher’s union could do it,” Arikan said. “So we could end up with a teacher’s union candidate as our fixture candidate of our school board, and that is totally unacceptable to me.”

The impetus for the proposal to have an all-elected school board has centered around complaints lawmakers have received about students not being in class during the COVID-19 pandemic, raising the need for the school board to be accountable to the people, legislators have said.

Arikan, expressing additional concerns about having an elected school board chair, took a swipe at the sitting board for their inaction, despite plans to return students to the classroom in a hybrid form next month.

“It’s really difficult for us to get quality candidates to run for these spots,” said Arikan, a mother of four. “As we’ve seen now our schools have been closed for 11 months; you would’ve thought they gave a crap about our kids, they clearly don’t.”

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