Howard County Times
Howard County

Proposal to end Howard County school board’s all-elected model fails; public campaign financing bill advances

A controversial bill that would have added two appointed members to the Howard County Board of Education is dead, according to state Del. Courtney Watson.

At the Howard state delegation’s final work session Wednesday, Watson and fellow co-sponsor Sen. Clarence Lam declined to bring the bill forward for a vote. The meeting was the last opportunity to advance proposed local legislation to the House of Delegates during this session of the Maryland General Assembly.


“I don’t think that it’s a solution that the community wants at this time,” Watson said. “I don’t see that [proposal] being something that comes back up in the future.”

The bill faced a barrage of public backlash after its introduction in the fall, with several current school board members testifying against it and residents staging a December demonstration in front of the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.


“I think it’s a great thing that it’s dead,” said Ellicott City resident Danny Mackey, 28, who organized the rally. “The most important thing all along has been protecting the right of Howard County voters to choose their board of education.”

Of the 24 Maryland school districts, just Baltimore, Caroline, Harford and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore City still use appointed board members, although state lawmakers voted last year to return the Prince George’s school board to an all-elected model.

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. Watson and Lam’s proposal would have added two members selected by the county executive, thereby creating a nine-member board.

While the bill’s sponsors said appointments could help increase policy expertise and the geographic diversity of the board, opponents countered it would dilute the will of voters in determining who runs a school district with nearly 60,000 students and a $1 billion operating budget.

“Part of the legislative process is to really understand what the voters want,” Watson said. “It was very heartening to see so many people come out and give their opinions on this bill, because a lot of times we do bills and you don’t hear too much.”

Community members attend a rally outside the George Howard Buliding in Ellicott City to oppose Howard County Bill 10-23 that would appoint two members to the board of education instead of being elected.

Watson and Lam also hoped appointments would “improve the coordination and collaboration” between the board, county executive and state delegation during the rollout of the multi-billion dollar Blueprint for Maryland’s Future legislation. In lieu of appointed members, Watson said the delegation is encouraging County Executive Calvin Ball to assign someone from his staff to be “more actively engaged in monitoring” the board and to hold regular meetings.

During Wednesday’s session, the delegation also approved a Ho.Co. 14-23, a bill enabling public campaign financing for school board elections, by a vote of 10-1, with Del. Vanessa Atterbeary being the lone vote against.

The campaign financing bill grew out of conversations with constituents about board appointments and alternatives to lowering barriers to serve on the school board, Watson said.


Currently, no Maryland school board candidates receive matching county funds for small donations. Delegates argued expanding the financing to school board races would reduce the impact of large private contributions and encourage more candidates to run.

“I think public financing for school board members is a fantastic idea,” said Mackey, who ran unsuccessfully for Howard school board in 2018 and struggled with fundraising. “To compete with some of the special interest groups that exist in our county you have to raise a lot of money and not everybody is able to do that.”

The bill is enabling legislation, meaning if approved by the General Assembly the Howard County Council would still need to implement it on its own.

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The delegation’s bill also alters term limits of school board members in order to phase in funding, to ensure the county office that oversees donation matches is not overwhelmed in a single election year.

All five district-based seats are up for election in 2024 and the two at-large seats in 2026. The bill would grant six-year terms to the two members with the highest winnings percentages in the district-based races, with the remaining three members receiving standard four-year terms. The at-large candidate with the most votes would also receive a six-year term.

Public campaign financing would first be made available in the 2026 at-large election. Beginning with the 2030 elections, all board memberships would revert to four-year terms


“The intention here is that nobody’s term is cut short,” Lam said. “Everyone will at least have a four-year term in order to help with staggering and phasing this in.”

A statewide bill that would bring public campaign financing to all Maryland school boards was also introduced to the House Ways and Means Committee on Jan. 20. The Howard-specific bill will now advance to Ways and Means for consideration.

Mackey said the defeat of the appointments bill and progress on campaign financing is a testament to the power of public testimony and protest.

“If the constituents hadn’t reacted in the way that we did, I think that this proposal could have gone forward and been implemented,” he said. “It galvanized the community around preserving our democratic rights and I think that that message was heard pretty clearly by every member of the delegation.”