Howard County Delegation Chairs Sen. Clarence Lam and Del. Courtney Watson proposed, under legislation filed last week, changing the county’s all-elected school board model to include two members recommended by the state delegation and appointed by the county executive.
In a Nov. 15 news release, Democrats Lam and Watson said the move would “improve the coordination and collaboration among the Howard County state delegation, the Howard County executive, and the Howard County Board of Education” and more effectively implement the $3.8 billion Blueprint for Maryland’s Future legislation.
“It forces us all to work together, which I think if you want good governance at the state, local and school system level, that it’s important to have good dialogue and collaboration,” Lam told the Howard County Times on Wednesday.
County Executive Calvin Ball said in an email Wednesday that his staff is aware of, and is reviewing, the legislation and looks forward to “a robust public process that accompanies all state legislation.”
The Howard school board has seven elected members — two at-large and five representing County Council districts — as well as a student member who votes on all issues except those pertaining to budgets, personnel or other restricted matters.
The proposed legislation would allow the county executive to appoint two members, based on recommendations from the state delegation, beginning in 2024. Three members elected by senatorial districts in 2024 and two at-large members elected in 2026 would make up the remainder of the reconfigured board.
“I don’t support any legislation that would dilute the will of the people,” said outgoing Board of Education Chair Vicky Cutroneo, who said she was speaking as an individual board member. “I believe it injects even more partisanship into what is supposed to be a nonpartisan, elected office.”
Cutroneo, whose term ends Dec. 5, said there are ways to increase collaboration between the state delegation and the school board without appointing members and that the two bodies have held multiple joint meetings to discuss the Blueprint’s implementation.
Lam and Watson said they have increasingly heard from constituents frustrated with education policy at the local level and argued the proposal would help hold state lawmakers accountable by tying them more directly to school board decisions.
“I do think it gives us a little bit more skin in the game,” said Watson, who served on the county’s Board of Education from 2002 to 2006.
The bill’s authors also said two appointed members could help boost geographic diversity and policy expertise at a time when the board is investing millions of dollars of Blueprint funding across the school system.
“We’ve seen a lot of members get elected to the board that may not have quite as much depth in education policy or prior experience,” Lam said. “This is a way to also be able to have additional members of the board that may be able to fill out and round out some areas of expertise.”
In addition to already bringing diverse backgrounds from the electorate, Cutroneo said the board has plenty of in-house policy expertise thanks to school system staff.
“We rely on our school personnel, they present reports to us, and we use their expertise to guide our decisions,” she said. “Certainly, the county executive’s office can hire Blueprint liaisons. ... There are [other] ways to address Sen. Lam’s concerns.”
This isn’t the first time major changes have been proposed to the school board’s structure in recent years.
In 2011, a commission appointed by then-County Executive Ken Ulman recommended a partially appointed board to help boost member diversity. While that measure failed, the current system stems from 2019, when the state General Assembly switched five at-large Howard board seats to correspond with County Council districts.
Other Maryland school districts have frequently grappled with the balance between elected and appointed school board members. In April, state lawmakers voted to return the Prince George’s County Board of Education to an all-elected model after years of infighting between elected and appointed members.
Just because hybrid approaches didn’t work in neighboring districts doesn’t mean the system isn’t worth trying in Howard County, Lam said.
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“How the board is comprised is an iterative process and I think this is the next examination of how we can continue to refine the members that serve on the board,” he said.
Lam and Watson stressed the bill is a “starting point” and that they want to hear from all stakeholders in the coming weeks.
“Already we have had both positive and negative feedback on the bill and we’ve also had a lot of suggestions,” Watson said. “We really encourage people to think about it and give us either at the public hearing their testimony or send it in through email for all the delegation to read.”
The state delegation typically consults the school board on education-related legislation before its publication, according to Cutroneo, who said board members are asked for input even if the two parties are not in agreement.
“We had our meeting with the delegation in September to talk and this [bill] was never raised,” she said. “It was surprising, at the very least.”
The Howard County delegation will hold a public hearing Dec. 14 at 7 p.m. in the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building to solicit public feedback on proposed local legislation. Registration to testify in person will be 6:20 p.m. to 6:50 p.m. outside the Banneker Room.
The hearing will be livestreamed and written testimony can also be emailed to email@example.com.