Howard commission studying school board structure discusses voter engagement, campaign issues

Members of a commission charged with recommending ways to create a more diverse school board met for the first time Wednesday, discussing voter engagement, ways to attract candidates and measures that have worked in other counties.

County Executive Ken Ulman appointed the board to discuss Howard's all-elected seven-member school board last month after concerns over the lack of geographic and ethnic diversity arose. The commission is made up of members of the county legislative delegation, current and former educators and is chaired by former state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

While Howard's 51,000-student population is becoming increasingly diverse, the school board currently has no African-American members. The board also has no representatives from heavily populated Columbia or Elkridge.

"This is a premier school system," Grasmick said at the start of the meeting, adding, "We want to be thoughtful to the recommendations we make."

The commission did not make immediate suggestions, but members did discuss the trend of school systems moving toward a hybrid system of elected and appointed members.

Grasmick said only three of the 24 school systems in the state have retained an all-appointed school board — Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Wicomico County, with several moving toward a hybrid system, such as in Harford County. Baltimore County Council members are also looking at revising their all-appointed system. The commission in Howard could also recommend a variation of an elected and appointed model, as well as changes to the countywide voting process.

Howard County school board member Ellen Flynn Giles, who attended the meeting, said, "I don't think it's not worth looking at — to look at what people want to see from their school board."

Though she praised the commission and evaluation of the system, Giles said she was confused by the timing, noting that there is a school board election next spring.

Up until early this year, Patricia Gordon, a retired New York educator who became the first African-American board member in 15 years when she joined the formerly all-white body a decade ago, remained on the board before retiring.

The board's one minority member is Brian Meshkin, who is Asian-American with a father born in Iran.

Howard's school board members are elected countywide and without political party designation. Grasmick said some school systems vote for officials by district for geographic diversity while others have a countywide vote to preserve a balance among districts.

The current all-elected system was created by a referendum in 1974. Giles said there was a countywide recommendation 10 years ago when terms were reduced from six to four years.

Giles said there was strong support then for a nonpartisan system, and added, "Schools don't fit neatly in [council] districts."

She said she liked the at-large system, noting it "makes us more balanced" and that she likes the opportunity to work with residents across the county.

But state Sen. James Robey questioned during the meeting why it's acceptable for council members to be elected by district but not a school board.

Several commission members also brought up the difficulties of running a countywide campaign when school board members often have less money to work with.

Del. Guy Guzzone, a Democrat, said, "I would never have run for school board," saying the large area and typically lower campaign funds can make it difficult for those running to get their message across.

Paul Lemle, president of the Howard County Education Association, raised the issue of "ballot fatigue," suggesting voters don't always know much about the candidates for school board.

Felícita Sola-Carter, president of Conexiones, an advocacy group, said she would like to look at what the job entails, as well as "what has triggered the current activity that there isn't an understanding on community issues," mentioning new diverse populations that might have different needs.

"It's a public service. Nobody can do this as a full-time job. It's not a career," Giles said after the meeting, adding board members earn $1,000 a month for their services.

In addition to the voting process, the commission members also discussed the process for perspective candidates.

Kevin Doyle, a trustee at Howard Community College, said, "Let's not make a change for the sake of change." He then asked, "What is it about the election process itself that's doing this?"

A public hearing is scheduled for Sept. 12, but the commission has not named a time or location yet. Starting Aug. 22, minutes for public comment will be available at the end of each meeting: Monday, Aug. 29, Thursday, Sept. 8, Monday, Sept. 19, and Monday, Sept. 26.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the birthplace of Brian Meshkin's father. The Sun regrets the error.


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