As the Howard County Delegation prepares for a vote next week, members are working to understand the implications of a bill sponsored by state Del. Warren Miller that would place additional public information restrictions on the county's school system.
As the Howard County Delegation prepares for a vote next week, members are working to understand the implications of a bill sponsored by state Del. Warren Miller that would place additional public information restrictions on the county's school system. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

As the Howard County delegation prepares for a vote next week, members are working to understand the implications of a bill sponsored by state Del. Warren Miller that would make it harder for the county's school system to deny public information requests.

The legislation would add provisions to the state's Public Information Act law that are specific to the Howard County Public School System, and would not apply to any other governmental body in the county or state. Among other regulations, it would require the school system to obtain court approval to deny the release of an interagency memorandum, and would make the school system's public records custodian liable for perjury should he or she falsely claim a document doesn't exist.

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"I'm already starting to feel that we may need a little group of folks who are interested in this — if they're interested in moving this forward — to meet in-between," state Sen. Guy Guzzone, the delegation chairman, said at a work session Wednesday. "Because it seems to me that there are a number of complicated issues that folks could give a little more attention to."

The county's representatives to the Maryland General Assembly are set to take a vote on the bill next Wednesday.

Miller told his fellow Howard County representatives that he drafted the bill because he believes that school officials in particular have not been complying with the state's public information regulations.

"They want to hide stuff that taxpayers have paid for," said the Republican from District 9A.

While other members of the delegation agreed that the school system needs to provide better access to public information, they raised questions about the mechanics and legal ramifications of Miller's bill, and about how it would interact with a revision of the Maryland Public Information Act passed by the General Assembly last year.

"I agree with Delegate Miller that there needs to be a process by which parents can have more confidence in the system," said state Sen. Gail Bates, a Republican who represents District 9. "There are just way too many people who have felt that they have been denied documents that are available."

But Bates asked if the problem could be solved, instead, with legislation providing for a lawyer to mediate public information disputes.

State Del. Terri Hill explained that the revision of the state public information law last April, which went into effect in October, already provided for a mediator in the form of a state public access ombudsman. It also created a commission that can review the fees charged by a custodian for gathering requested public information.

Under Miller's legislation, the school system's keeper of public records would have to petition the ombudsman to review a public information request and advise the records custodian on his or her response.

"What I see what Delegate Miller doing is, he's taking advantage of those entities," said Hill, a Democrat representing District 12. "So that the school system doesn't get to say, 'We don't care what the ombudsman says, we're not going to discuss what the ombudsman says.'"

State Del. Vanessa Atterbeary took issue with the section of the bill that would require the school system to consult a court before denying the release of an interagency memorandum.

"I'm fully supportive of the idea that something needs to be done about this issue. But this provision I'm a little leery of," said Atterbeary, a District 13 Democrat. "The focus of the bill should be that the ombudsman make sure that school system is following the law and resolving disputes before they go to court."

After discussion of the legislation had ended, Hill and Miller said that they would work on the bill before the vote next Wednesday. Guzzone suggested Miller send any amendments to the delegation at least a day ahead of the vote.

"And I would like the school system to see them ahead of time," said the District 13 Democrat. "It would be useful for them to make comments."

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School board bill raises fewer questions

Discussion of the school board bill sponsored by Atterbeary, which will also be voted on next week, was much shorter at the Wednesday work session. Her legislation proposes to elect five members of the county's school board by district. All seven members currently serve at-large.

State Del. Eric Ebersole, a Democrat from District 12, suggested an amendment to the bill that would stagger school board elections so that the five districted members would be elected during one cycle, and the two at-large members elected during another; Atterbeary's legislation proposes ending staggering so that all seven board members are elected every four years, in order to make the process less confusing for the public.

Retaining staggering, Ebersole said, would prevent candidates from having to make a decision between running a countywide or district campaign, which he said could be a political decision. Members of the current school board have raised concerns that the bill would politicize the Board of Education.

Ebersole was encouraged by Hill and other members to draft a staggering amendment before the vote next week.

Hill suggested that if the delegation votes to approve Atterbeary's bill, that it send the legislation to a referendum vote in November. She said that this would give voters in Howard County the chance to weigh in on the issue, since there has been so much public discussion of the bill.

State Del. Frank Turner, a Democrat representing District 13, disagreed, saying that there was no precedent for this in Howard County.

"I don't know if we want to start down that road," he said.

Members of the Howard County delegation will meet Wednesday, Feb. 3 at 9 a.m. to discuss and vote on the two education bills sponsored by state delegates Vanessa Atterbeary and Warren Miller. The session is open to the public and will take place in room 218 of the House of Delegates Office Building in Annapolis.

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