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Harford lawmakers may amend House bill to create fully elected school board

Harford County’s Delegation will consider amended legislation Thursday that would alter the make-up of the county’s school board from a mix of elected and appointed members to a fully elected school board.

House Bill 283, which was originally written to stagger the start of appointed and elected board members terms, was wholly amended last week during the delegation’s Thursday morning meeting.

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Harford County Republican Del. Rick Impallaria speaks during a community meeting in this Aegis file photo. Impallaria has proposed an amendment to legislation that would make Harford County's school board fully elected.
Harford County Republican Del. Rick Impallaria speaks during a community meeting in this Aegis file photo. Impallaria has proposed an amendment to legislation that would make Harford County's school board fully elected. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Del. Rick Impallaria has been pushing for several weeks to amend the bill to call for a fully elected school board, but had run into opposition from delegation chair Teresa Reilly. Last Thursday, Del. Steve Johnson seconded Impallaria’s motion to amend the bill and it carried 4-2.

The changes Impallaria was proposing would strike the entire House Bill 283 as it was written, and instead have a fully elected school board by six councilmanic districts and another at-large member elected to serve as the board president, mirroring the make-up of the Harford County Council. Currently, six members of the school board are elected by council districts and three are appointed by the governor. The school board then chooses who will serve as its president.

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Dels. Susan McComas and Mary Ann Lisanti also voted in favor of the amendment, with Reilly and Del. Mike Griffith dissenting. Dels. Lauren Arikan and Kathy Szeliga had signed off the virtual meet to attend another meeting before the vote was taken, but were called back for discussion, although the amendment had already passed by simple majority of those present.

Szeliga didn’t think it was appropriate for the group to vote on the amendment without seeing the details first.

“This isn’t just a minor technical amendment, we’re re-writing the entire bill,” she said. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to see what we’re voting on.”

Ultimately, a second vote was taken, and the group unanimously decided to vote on House Bill 283 as amended, once the details were written out, at this Thursday’s delegation meeting. Should the delegation vote in favor of the bill, it would still have to go through the usual process, moving to the Senate then being voted on in the floor of both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly to become law.

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In calling for a fully elected school board, Impallaria pointed to the number of complaints he’s received recently about Harford County Public Schools not bringing students back to the classroom amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He noted that state lawmakers don’t have the ability to change those decisions.

“The only thing we can do is pass this bill to make a fully elected school board so these people on the school board are answerable in the next coming election,” he said.

The Harford County Board of Education lent support to the original language in House Bill 283 last month, but upon learning of the changes Monday, voted unanimously to “strongly oppose” any changes to the bill’s substance.

Elected board member Sonja Karwacki said her greatest concern with the changes being discussed is it “invites political parties to recruit and support financially and otherwise, the election of an individual for board president.

“I say that because it is a very costly enterprise if you are going countywide and the average person would not be able to afford the funding to be able to run for that position,” she added. “Then you have an individual that would be indebted to a political party and this is in direct violation of a state requirements that all members of a board of education be total nonpartisn in the performance of their duties.”

Rachel Gauthier, the school board’s vice president, agreed that it seemed “political forces” were at work to benefit their party.

“Since we all believe education is for everyone ... it brings the politics back into the building, yet again, in another way,” she said, noting she would like to send a letter to the delegation seeking to understand the rationale for the late change without notifying the public.

Lack of public input was also a concern Szeliga expressed during Thursday’s delegation meeting. She and Griffith also questioned moving the legislation forward without public input from key stakeholders. Szeliga specifically mentioned the NAACP, which had a hand in 2009 legislation which saw Harford move from a fully appointed school board to the current mix.

A few school board members mentioned that the current model ensures diversity among the board, not just in racial makeup, but also in outside experiences.

“I love working with all of our appointed members,” Gauthier said. “They bring a lot of diversity both in terms of ethnic background and business background and had we not had those positions as appointments, we would be missing those points of view which I think are critical.”

Griffith, who has been critical of HCPS and championing a return to school amid the pandemic, asked Impallaria whether he’d had discussions with the school board, Superintendent Sean Bulson or the teacher’s union.

Impallaria dismissed his questions, saying the superintendent’s opinion “doesn’t matter” since he isn’t elected by the public and that “teachers don’t want the kids to go back to school so I don’t care what they think either, to be honest with you.”

“The Board of Education isn’t doing their job, the kids aren’t back in school and they don’t have a plan,” Impallaria said.

The school board has announced plans to return elementary schoolers for in-person hybrid learning twice a week March 1, and middle and high school students once a week March 15. Elementary school students might return to four days a week in April.

Griffith noted Impallaria’s amendment doesn’t do anything to change return to school plans.

Delegates supporting the amendment, when questioned by Szelgia about soliciting public feedback, pointed to discussions years ago when residents favored a fully elected school board, but lawmakers compromised on the current hybrid of elected and appointed members.

“I’ve had plenty of public input, I was on [the county] council when this issue was deliberated and sat through hours of testimony,” Lisanti said. “This has been discussed many, many times with many organizations. I feel comfortable I’ve heard public opinion.”

McComas said it would difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic to solicit feedback the way they have in the past, by traveling to different communities or having a large gathering.

“Your public meetings are going to be in the House and in the Senate for this bill,” she said. “I’m sure we’ll get feedback one way or the other, if the NAACP is very upset about it.”

McComas also countered that having an all-elected board would not necessarily mean the school board would lack diversity. The county council, which the school board would mirror under Impallaria’s proposal, currently has two Black members.

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“I don’t think we have to be concerned about the African-American community [not] being elected, because they are,” she said. “This concern that we won’t get minorities is a false argument.”

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Time is of the essence to move to a fully elected school board, Impallaria argued. If it doesn’t pass this year in time for the next school board election in 2022, then it’ll be six years down the road before a move can be made. The original bill, he noted, can still be passed next year in time for the presidential election, when new appointed board members would be named under that legislation.

“We either do this now, and attempt to get this done now for the people that have been calling me upset with how things have been going with the school board or we waste six years,” he said. “We’re not going to lose any ground if we pass this bill this year.”

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