Efforts by the Maryland General Assembly to improve reporting, coordination among school districts and other measures to bolster school security around the state prompted a spirited discussion earlier this week among members of the Harford County Board of Education about the role of state government in local education matters.
During Monday night's board meeting in Bel Air, member Robert Frisch asked his fellow board members to oppose House Bill 983, which, if passed, would require local school officials to evaluate their emergency plans and report to state education officials. The bill is scheduled for a hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee this Wednesday, March 6.
A companion piece of legislation, House Bill 453, would create the Maryland Center for School Safety, a state agency tasked with assisting local school systems with improving security in the wake of last year's deadly shootings of 26 pupils and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Frisch said Harford County's school system is considered "ahead of the curve" in the area of school security.
"It is other school systems, not only in Maryland but also in other states, that have come to us, to look at our model of how we are addressing these safety concerns," Frisch said, in explaining his opposition to HB 983.
His motion to oppose the legislation failed on a 5-4 vote, despite claims by Frisch and board President Francis "Rick" Grambo III that the bills constitute an overreach by state government and that Harford County Public Schools had taken a number of measures long before the Sandy Hook tragedy to improve school security.
"To me that just opens the door for someone to come in behind those reports and questions or criticize what we do, and that's just the first step to them dictating what we have to do to make these improvements, or at least their idea of what improvements should be," Frisch said as the motion was being discussed.
Frisch stressed he did not want it to appear the board was against keeping schools safe; however, he feels the legislation "interferes with local board authority."
He said the school board has worked with school security officers, as well as Harford County law enforcement and emergency management officials, to improve security and make local schools safer.
House Bill 983 – which has a companion bill in the state Senate, Senate Bill 143 – would require Maryland's 24 school districts to conduct a detailed evaluation of "the effectiveness of the emergency management plan" for each public school in the district, according to the bill's summary posted on the General Assembly website.
The evaluation, along with recommendations for improvements, would then be sent to the Maryland State Department of Education before Dec. 1; MSDE would then issue a report to the General Assembly by Jan. 1, 2014, according to a summary provided to school board members by Kathy Carmello, HCPS' facilitator of government relations.
Carmello provided a detailed legislative update to school board members Monday, informing them of developments in the current legislative session in Annapolis that would affect Harford County schools.
She said officials with the Maryland State Department of Education are already working with local school officials on security matters.
"I saw that as a gateway bill," Grambo said of HB 983. "It's one of those fluffy little pieces that Annapolis likes to write, so that down the road they can add mandates and spending and things like that. . . . they're taking advantage of a tragic situation."
He and Frisch said they are concerned about the creation of a new state agency which could "dictate to local school boards."
Board member James Thornton, however, took issue with their characterization of the legislation as a case of the state dictating to local government.
"This board has functioned on a nonpartisan basis, and my sense is that we may share different ideologies, in terms of the role of government, and I'm not sure if this is the forum [where] we should personally expound on what our views are," Thornton said. "Otherwise we move into – I think – an arena that could be potentially very devastating for this board."
Board member Cassandra Beverley said the legislation could also be seen as a way to help school districts "improve emergency management and the cost for that."
"If we plan to seek state funding for any of the improvements that we believe need to be made in our system, then it would be – I would believe – incumbent upon us to look at where our deficits are and what funds we might need in order to implement those improvements," Beverley said.
While pointing out he was "not necessarily of the same political views" as some of his fellow board members, board member Thomas Fitzpatrick said he shared their concerns about "things like this getting to be yet another state mandate."
Many school staffers, he said, "often feel very buried in meeting bureaucratic requirements that are imposed on them by state and federal agencies, and this does have that nose-under-the-tent feel to it."
Board Vice President Nancy Reynolds also objected to the potential additional burden on school staffers.
"I think we are bogged down by the amount of paperwork that we have to do, and the amount of documentation for a multitude of bills and amendments and regulations," she said.
Thornton said he still did not feel the legislation is an imposition on local school systems.
"We get the benefit of MSDE looking at 23 other jurisdictions, along with ours, and providing feedback and so I don't see that as intrusive, and I guess I don't know why we would be opposed to providing the information and perhaps we come out of it as a benchmark for other jurisdictions to follow, as opposed to seeing it as big government controlling the local school system," he explained.
In a roll-call vote, Frisch's motion was supported by him, Grambo, Fitzpatrick and Reynolds. Beverly, Thornton and members Alysson Krchnavy and Arthur Kaff and student representative Panashe Mutombo, voted against it. Appointed member Joseph Hau was absent Monday.
Frisch also made a motion for the board not to support HB 453 to create a state agency for school security.
Krchnavy suggested the board "have no position on House Bill 453; I would say that having no position also can speak volumes."
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The motion failed 7-2, as Frisch and Grambo voted for it, and all the others voted against.