Three bills compete to change Howard’s school board structure

State Del. Vanessa Atterbeary
State Del. Vanessa Atterbeary (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The structure of Howard County's school board could change as state lawmakers propose three competing plans to how school board members are elected.

Currently, school board candidates run for seven at-large seats in a non-partisan race, but lawmakers say that system does not do enough to boost accountability, encourage diversity and push board members to respond to concerns within their constituent-base.


State Del. Vanessa Atterbeary is reintroducing a bill that aligns school board districts with councilmanic districts. Five members would be elected by district while the remaining two seats would be at-large positions.

Tying school board seats to council districts ensures board members are beholden to the unique needs of their constituents and gives parents and educators a single point of contact to address concerns, said Atterbeary, a Democrat.


"There is a belief amongst the community that certain schools in the county are treated different," Atterbeary said. All schools need to be represented equally and fairly and all parents need to feel like they have a voice."

Propelled by recent concerns of waste and inefficiency, Del. Warren Miller is seeking to halt all non-competitive contracts awarded by Howard County Public Schools.

The bill, which drew support from the community at hearings last year, failed to make it to the General Assembly after state Del. Bob Flanagan and state Sens. Edward Kasemeyer, a Democrat, and Gail Bates voted against the proposal.

Bates and Flanagan, both Republicans, feared the proposal would inject politics into the nonpartisan school board race, and are this year each offering a competing proposal.

"Councilmanic districts are highly partisan and grossly gerrymandered," Flanagan said. "We do not want to inject partisanship, gerrymandering and all of the related problems into the election of the school board."

Flanagan's plan calls for districts drawn by an 11-member commission of citizens selected through a lottery managed by the county executive.

The commission, chaired by a retired judge selected by the Howard County Council and funded by county taxpayer dollars, would create seven school board districts.

Members would draw districts to match the proportion of registered voters by party. All members must be registered voters and cannot serve as public officials in the state.

The county would reimburse commission members for their participation.

Bates' proposal also creates a commission that would draw districts, but places selection powers in the hands of local organizations and requires citizen input throughout the redrawing process.

"There is no place for politics with the school board," Bates said.

State Sens. Gail Bates and Edward Kasemeyer, along with state Del. Robert Flanagan, have voted down legislation that would have created a school board partially elected by districts. The legislation was sponsored by state Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a District 13 Democrat, and would have required five of the county school board¿s seven members to be elected by councilmanic district instead of by countywide vote.

The Howard County Education Association, the Parent-Teacher Association Council of Howard County and the Howard County Administrators Association would each appoint three members.

Each organization can only appoint one person from each councilmanic district, an effort to screen the body from partisan influence and represent the county's diversity.


Members of the commission would be barred from seeking public office in the county during their term. Districts would be drawn to evenly distribute populations and ensure high school attendance areas remain in similar zones.

The Howard County state delegation will consider the proposals by January following a public hearing on Dec. 21.

Atterbeary's proposal would go into effect in 2018 while the other proposals would go into effect in 2022.

This year's school board race ushered in three new faces — Kirsten Coombs, Mavis Ellis and Christina Delmont-Small — ousting three incumbents. Only one person of color, Mavis Ellis, is represented on the new board, which was sworn in on Dec. 5.

Atterbeary's proposal drew support from the local teacher's union and community members, but was hit by criticism from Superintendent Renee Foose and members of the former school board, who expressed concerns about injecting politics into the race.

Flanagan said the current system showed "a clear opportunity to change direction," but a more targeted model was still warranted.

With Renee Foose set to begin another four-year term as superintendent of Howard County schools -- despite attempts to block her reappointment -- her critics say they are looking to the upcoming Board of Education election as the only way to restore accountability and transparency to the county school system.

"We've seen some red flags from the school system management. We have a concerning report regarding public information requests. We have serious questions about how public input has been disregarded in making major decisions," Flanagan said. "People feel that they're not being heard."

Moves to repurpose how school board members are elected cropped up nearly four years ago when former State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick sought to create a hybrid model with five members elected by district and two appointed by the county executive. Grasmick posed the recommendation as the head of a commission under then-County Executive Ken Ulman.

Del. Frank Turner, a Columbia Democrat, pushed for Grasmick's proposal in the 2012 General Assembly, but withdrew the bill after hitting public pushback.

Howard's school board was appointed by the governor until the 1970s. In 2006, the number of seats grew from five to seven.

Of Maryland's 24 local school boards, 11 are elected and three are formed by appointments from the governor. The remaining boards are composed of a combination of elected and appointed positions.

The Howard County delegation will hear input on the proposals at its yearly public hearing on all draft state bills on Dec. 21 at 7 p.m. in the George Howard building in Ellicott City.

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