Howard Co. lawmaker drops hybrid school board plan

A state lawmaker from Howard County killed a proposal to restructure the local school board Wednesday, amid strong opposition from residents, parent-teacher groups and sitting members of the education panel.

Del. Frank Turner withdrew a plan that would have changed the makeup of the board to include two appointed members and five elected by district. The board now has seven members elected at large. Turner said he did not plan to revisit the matter before the 2014 election.

He said he made the decision in light of the concerns he heard about the measure. Many residents were apprehensive that adding appointed members would dilute their voting power, while others argued that a change could help reflect the geographic and racial makeup of the school system.

"I think it was good we had the debate," Turner, a Democrat, said in an interview. "I think that a lot of people are going to be more sensitive. I think we need to have this discussion so that … we can move forward and continue to be the No. 1 school system."

The proposed model had been passed along by a study commission formed by County Executive Ken Ulman in response to concerns that the board needed more racial and geographic diversity. If Turner's proposal had gone forward, it could have come before the state legislature during a special session next week.

But at a public hearing on Tuesday night, Howard County residents offered emotional testimony objecting to the plan, following opposition from such groups as the PTA Council of Howard County. School board members argued that a shake-up would interfere with the search to replace retiring Superintendent Sydney Cousin and disrupt academic progress.

Ulman, a Democrat, said that after the study commission began probing the issue, many county residents approached him to say they did not know that none of the board members resides in Columbia or Elkridge.

"I believe the recommendation and the bill would have improved representation on the school board and improved our school system, which was always my goal," said Ulman, "but I also really appreciated everyone who came out and had their voices heard on this subject. The vast majority of people who came out felt that change was not warranted at this time."

State Sen. Allan Kittleman, a Republican who represents Howard and Carroll counties, praised the move to drop the bill.

"I think it's the right move," Kittleman said. "I am glad that Delegate Turner was willing to listen to the voters and citizens of Howard County. I'm glad he sees that the great majority of Howard County citizens want to be able to continue to elect their school board members at large."

School board Chairwoman Janet Siddiqui said that the board was pleased to hear that Turner had withdrawn the bill, and Chaun Hightower, president of the PTA Council of Howard County, said in a statement that the council applauded Turner's decision.

Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, said it was "a shame" that the bill was being withdrawn

"It's very unfortunate that we have gotten to the point in the community where we can't come together and deal with one of the most critical issues in our community over the last 40 years," he said.

Hanover resident Leslie Kornreich, who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the school board during the last election, supported the bill because it called for election by district. Still, she said that she thought the bill drew strong opposition because most people were against appointed board members.

Kornreich said she believes that the proposal for district elections might have fared better had it not been tied to the appointments proposal.

"I was afraid that the [appointments] would take the whole bill down with them, and sure enough, that's what happened," Kornreich said. "It was a real political miscalculation on the part of Frank Turner, who I believe tried to do a good thing, but the two appointed seats should never have been in there, and they brought the whole house down with them."


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