The state Senate’s Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs committee heard testimony Wednesday on a local bill that would change the appointing authority for the Harford County school board from the governor to the county executive, with input from the county council.
“This change is intended to bring appointment decisions closer to the local level, and require collaboration between the executive and legislative branches of county government,” said Sen. Jason Gallion, who presented the legislation on behalf of the Harford County Senators.
Senate Bill 382 would also stagger when the elected and appointed school board members come into office, the original intent of the pre-filed bill before amendments changing the appointing authority were added.
Jim Thornton testified in opposition to the bill, stating the current makeup of the Harford County Public Schools Board of Education “is not broken,” and that the amendments give too much power to the county executive and could have “tremendous implications on the diversity of the board over time.”
In 2009, legislation was passed that changed the Harford school board from one fully appointed by the governor to the current makeup of three governor appointees and six members elected by districts that mirror those of the Harford County Council.
Discussions on changing the makeup of the school board began in early February during a Harford House delegation meeting, when Del. Rick Impallaria suggested ripping up a bill to stagger appointed and elected members terms and amending it to call for a fully elected board, removing all appointees and adding a chair elected at-large.
While those amendments did not pass when the delegation deadlocked 4-4 last month, the county’s Senators opted to amend their version of the bill to have appointed members picked at a local level.
Thornton, who is president of the Harford County Caucus of African-American Leaders and chair of the local branch of the NAACP, noted that no county executive in Harford has appointed a person of color to chair a major county board or commission.
“To give any county executive this level of control — a third [of the school board] potentially — blurs the line of separation of roles in how public education is designed to operate in Maryland,” he said. “Harford is a red county. I’m deeply concerned that the board of ed will become a political football that will undermine its effectiveness as a neutral body, shielded from the whims of a county executive or county council.”
Gallion argued that the advice and consent of the county council during the process was important to balance an executive’s appointments. He also noted that the county council would retain the power to make appointments when an elected member of the school board resigned.
Regarding diversity, the Senator told the committee he wanted to highlight another amendment that states: “In appointing members to the county board, the county executive shall ensure, to the extent practical, that the total makeup of the county board reflects the gender, ethnic and racial diversity of the county.”
But Thornton pushed back on Gallion’s assertion that the county council would serve as a check to the executive’s appointment power.
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“There has been no rejection of any of those selected by the county executive as submitted to the county council,” he said of previous appointments. “In other words, an appointment by our county executive of Harford County is a guaranteed appointment.”
No one else testified, in favor or in opposition, during the committee hearing, although Gallion noted he had received other letters of opposition.
The Harford County Council of PTA Board of Directors sent a letter to the county’s lawmakers unanimously opposing “any legislation that changes, modifies, or adjusts the composition of, or process for, election or appointment of members to the Harford County Public Schools Board of Education without a comprehensive, transparent and inclusive input process.”
That process would include multiple community input meetings held in a variety of locations in Harford County, including all stakeholders, with sufficient notice and opportunities for resident to participate, according to the letter, signed by Renee DeBiase, president of the Harford PTA.
Thornton also noted the lack of community input on both the House and Senate proposals.
“Community input is critical before moving forward on a bill of this magnitude,” he said.
A committee vote on the Senate bill has not yet been scheduled.