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Elected school superintendents in Harford and Baltimore counties? Pair of delegates want feedback on the idea

A pair of lawmakers representing Harford and Baltimore counties are considering introducing a bill during next year’s legislative session to make school superintendents in those counties elected positions.

“Superintendents should be accountable to not only the parents but also to the citizens who supply the money to run the schools,” Del. Rick Impallaria, a Republican who represents both counties, said in a statement.

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Local boards of education in Maryland currently appoint superintendents to run their districts. Del. Joseph Boteler, a Baltimore County Republican, said 13 other states elect their superintendents.

“Our hope is that we can ask students’ parents and citizens of each county to participate in work groups over the summer to help draft this very important legislation,” Boteler said in the statement. “Many aspects have to be considered; there are different policies in each of these 13 states, and we want to find what will work best for us here in Baltimore and Harford counties.”

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Impallaria, who has been critical of both Baltimore and Harford county’s public school systems for not fully reopening sooner during the COVID-19 pandemic, said it’s time for a change after watching how public schools have been run over the past decade.

“The Baltimore and Harford County Superintendents have control over large budgets, comprising 50% of each county’s total budget,” he said. “In contrast, our county executives and sheriffs are elected, both controlling budgets that are smaller than the school budget.”

Earlier in this legislative session, Impallaria had pushed to amend a local House bill that would’ve staggered the terms of elected and appointed members of Harford County’s school board to instead create a fully elected Board of Education. The Harford County delegation deadlocked 4-4 on those amendments, with many of those voting not opposing the idea, but saying more time was needed to gather public comment.

Harford County Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, a Democrat who voted in favor of the elected school board amendment, said the elected superintendent proposal is “certainly a conversation starter.”

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“One thing we’ve heard loud and clear from the public is that accountability is lacking and we need to change the way we do things,” as it relates to schools, she said.

In their statement, Impallaria and Boteler said residents of both counties have been disappointed in their superintendents because of “corruption and criminal prosecutions, and frustrated by the lack of empathy for the students, the parents, and the taxpayers.”

In 2017, then-Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance resigned and was later convicted of four counts of perjury after he failed to disclose on financial reports that he had a part-time job with a company that had a contract with the school system.

Darryl L. Williams was picked by the Baltimore County school board in 2019 to become its next superintendent over Verletta White, who had led the school system in an interim role after Dance’s departure.

Sean Bulson was named the superintendent of Harford County Public Schools in 2018, succeeding Barbara P. Canavan, who had led the county’s school system for the previous five years. Bulson did not wish to comment when made aware of Impallaria and Boteler’s proposal.

“Superintendents are in no way answerable to the public that they serve, but as political appointees answer to politicians,” the statement from the two lawmakers states. “This type of legislation will change all that and will put our school system back in the hands of the public that funds it rather than the failed system of nationwide searches, political cronyism and failed results.”

But Del. Mike Griffith, a Republican representing Harford and Cecil counties who has been critical of return to school responses in the wake of the pandemic, worries that having an elected superintendent opens the door for special interests to have greater influence on education.

“Special interest groups like the teacher’s union, they could handpick somebody — from anywhere in the country really — have them move to Harford County at a time prior to when they are required to establish residency, then fund one campaign and completely control our school system,” he said.

Board of education members, he said, are typically members of the community and because they are only paid about $300 a month, it doesn’t behoove them to move to a different district to run for an elected position. But for a superintendent position that pays more than $200,000 a year?

“People will relocate for that job, especially if their campaign is already funded,” he said, “and who else is going to fund a campaign in opposition to that? In my opinion, it’s basically gifting the superintendent position to special interest groups.

“It makes it an easier path for the teacher’s union to control our schools, not the opposite.”

Boteler and Impallaria have asked residents to contact them with their thoughts and plan to announce dates and times to discuss potential legislation in the future.

Impallaria, in an interview, said he hopes to convene work groups to debate the intricacies of any proposed legislation. A one-size-fits-all solution would not be right for the state, and he would not seek to require other jurisdictions to change.

Work groups would have to look at other jurisdictions that have elected superintendents to suss out the best way forward for Harford and Baltimore counties, he said, but also that candidates should have a requisite amount of experience to be eligible to run. He gave examples of accountancy, legal, educational or military experience as examples of benchmarks for candidates. Further still, a recall process could be a part of his legislation in case an elected candidate does a poor job.

”We want to bring the group together to discuss all those issues and cover all the bases,” he said. “There does need to be a process in place, and recall definitely could be part of that process.”

Lisanti is hopeful any conversations between the end of this year’s session and the start of next year’s include discussions about budgetary authority for the school system, and another look at an elected school board.

“All these things need some public consideration,” she said. “What the public is saying is they want more accountability and the vehicle to accountability is elections ... [but] we have to talk about all of it in totality.”

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