The Harford County Delegation opted to table for one week voting on an amendment to a bill that seeks to change the makeup of the county’s Board of Education from elected and appointed members to a fully elected board.
Several delegation members who had pushed last week to take a vote on the amendment before it had been written said during Thursday’s delegation meeting they wanted to give more time for public input.
Del. Rick Impallaria, who introduced the amendment, although it was ultimately put into writing by Del. Susan McComas, said he’d heard from constituents and noted letters from the PTA and other groups received in the past week.
“We’re early in this, and I really think this is a very important issue, so I don’t see any reason to vote on this until next week, when people will have a good chance to look at it,” Impallaria said.
Del. Steve Johnson made the motion to table the bill until next week to give people more time to look at the amendment, which stripped the original text of House Bill 283 and amended it to call for six school board members elected by district and one chairperson to be elected at-large.
The delegation unanimously voted to hold off until its meeting next Thursday to get more public feedback. However, the amended bill is not available publicly on the Maryland General Assembly website, only the original version. Cynthia Robichaud, the delegation’s secretary, suggested constituents with concerns or comments contact their elected representatives.
Robichaud and Dels. McComas and Mary Ann Lisanti responded to a request from The Aegis to the entire delegation for a copy of the amended legislation.
Originally, House Bill 283 sought to stagger terms of elected and appointed members of the school board. Currently, the three appointments are made and six members are elected by district during the gubernatorial election cycle. The original bill was voted on and passed by the delegation 5-3 at the Jan. 28 virtual meeting.
At the delegation’s Feb. 4 meeting, Impallaria made a motion, which passed 4-2, to verbally amend the bill to require a fully elected school board of seven people. Six would be elected by councilmanic districts as they are now and the school board’s chair would be elected at-large, similar to the Harford County Council president. The amended bill would also form a study group to look at compensation for school board members.
Having a member of the Board of Education elected in a countywide race seemed to be the biggest sticking point among constituents, delegates said Thursday.
“The stakeholders I’ve talked to and the written input that we’ve received all boils down to one issue,” Lisanti said. “It’s not whether we should have an elected school board … the issue becomes of the at-large member. It’s a simple fix, you have one appointment and let the school board pick their chair.”
McComas agreed that, based on feedback she’s heard, having someone run countywide to be the chair of the school board, “was not a good idea, so that would need to be amended.”
That was a position supported in a letter to the delegation from County Executive Barry Glassman dated Tuesday. As a state Senator, Glassman was the lead sponsor on the 2009 bill that created the current nine-member school board. Previously, Harford’s Board of Education was fully appointed.
The 2009 legislation, Glassman wrote in his letter “was drafted after extensive and direct discussion with the citizens of Harford County, and was debated and passed by the General Assembly and signed in to law by the Governor with the express intent to ensure diversity on the School Board through the Governor’s retention of those appointment powers. This proposal could threaten that ability to ensure diversity.”
Glassman urged the delegation to retain at least one at-large appointment by the governor to school board.
Del. Kathy Szeliga, who said she spoke with members of the Harford County NAACP and others, also said having one person elected countywide presented limitations on who could run for that seat.
Members of the delegation also argued over how public feedback on the amended bill would be received over the next week.
Impallaria said he had discussed the bill with several constituent groups, such as the Reopen Harford County Schools group, and that the delegation had already heard from the Board of Education and county executive.
Szeliga worried that the “vast majority of people across Harford County probably have no idea we are having this discussion. It’s myopic to think [that just] because there are people on Facebook talking about this. We really need public input, not just the loudest people talking about it.”
Del. Lauren Arikan asked “How are they going to know this bill is happening? Are we hosting a hearing? How are they going to know what we’re doing? Usually we do public input with a meeting.”
Others like Lisanti, who served on the county council when the legislation to move to a hybrid school board passed, said “for those of us that have been in office for that amount of time, this issue has been discussed quite often.”
“Particularly since this pandemic, we have received, at least I have received, a tremendous amount of feedback on the accountability, in particular, of the school board,” she said.
But Szeliga said they have constituents who were in high school when the 2009 legislation was discussed who now have their own children in school and should be able to weigh-in. Considering amending the legislation again to one appointed board member rather than one elected at-large also changes the discussion, she said.
“It seems like there’s more on the table than just this amendment, I think it’s responsible to let the whole public weigh in,” Szeliga said.
Del. Teresa Reilly, the chair of the Harford delegation and lead sponsor on the original bill, argued there would be little time for public input since HB283 already had a committee hearing in the House.
“So this huge amendment, which totally, drastically changes the entire bill that was put forth to the committee, will not have any public input,” she said, noting because it is crossfiled in the Senate, it will be heard there. “But again, as we’ve been saying for the past three weeks, this should’ve been its own bill and moved forward that way, and let us move on with what has already passed.”
A hearing had been scheduled for Thursday in the Senate on that chamber’s version of the original bill, staggering elected and appointed board members. That hearing was canceled.
Del. Mike Griffith said he didn’t understand the urgency on the matter.
“The focus is how do we get our kids back in school, right now, this year,” he said. “This doesn’t get a single kid back in school until 2023.”