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Editorial: Amendments to reconfigure Harford’s school board being rushed to capitalize on parents’ angst | COMMENTARY

There is a saying in politics to never let a good crisis go to waste. Proposed changes to the makeup of the Harford County Board of Education in the state legislature seem to be good examples of that.

It’s no secret that a lot of parents are frustrated with the local school system over its return to school plans or, to hear some tell it, the lack thereof.

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Putting aside for a moment the arguments for getting children back in the classroom sooner and more frequently versus continuing virtual learning, it appears to us state lawmakers are trying to seize the opportunity to mold the Board of Education into what they thought it should’ve been more than a decade ago.

In 2009, a compromise was reached to have a hybrid school board made up of six members elected by district and three appointed by the governor; previously the Board of Education was made up entirely of governor’s appointees. A number of officials preferred a fully elected school board.

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Attempts to amend a House bill that would’ve have six board members elected by district and one chair elected at-large, failed when the delegation deadlocked. A Senate proposal would keep the six elected/three appointed make-up of the board, but would give appointment powers to the county executive, with approval by the county council. That bill will be heard in the Senate’s Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs committee at 1 p.m. Wednesday.

Both amendments are seeking to seize on the angst of parents upset their children haven’t consistently been in a classroom in nearly a year. But the legislation lawmakers are trying to ram through does nothing to address that matter.

Furthermore, neither amendment has been properly vetted by the public, although people can testify in favor or against the bill at Wednesday’s Senate committee hearing. The House amendments didn’t come until after the hearing on the original bill to stagger terms of appointed and elected board members.

The current Board of Education has not taken a vote on bringing children back to the classroom. Instead, they’ve taken their direction from the superintendent’s recommendations.

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One can certainly argue that the silence on the matter from the nine board members is deafening. But would changing the makeup of the board have led to a different conclusion? In our view, that seems unlikely.

Six seats on the board are already elected by council district, making a two-thirds majority directly accountable to the voters. While some board members have, at times, made clear to the administration the school system needed to do everything it could to bring students back safely, none of those six elected board members has called on a vote for an earlier return.

Would a chairperson, elected at-large, have broken with the superintendent and called for such a vote? Would it be different if the three members were appointed by the county executive and council, as the Senate amendment proposes? Without a vote to this point, it seems unlikely anything would be different.

Regardless of any changes by in the state legislature, voters unhappy with the current Board of Education can boot sitting members in the 2022 elections if they choose. And the appointed members could be replaced by the next governor.

But if Harford County’s delegates and senators truly believe that the current mix of school board members isn’t working and isn’t accountable to the people, then they need to be accountable to their own constituents and take the time to get public input and make sure they do the legislation correctly — not try to ram something through this session.

Soliciting public feedback via community meetings — which we will hopefully be able to have in-person between the end of this year’s legislative session and next — is the appropriate way forward. Even then, we would recommend that any legislation that is passed also be ratified by voters. Doing all that in time to get this change on the ballot for 2022 is not an unreasonable expectation.

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