A week ahead of the start of the General Assembly's 2016 legislative session, members of the Howard County delegation are expressing varying levels of support for two local education bills. One would change the way in which the county's school board members are elected and the other would place extra restrictions on how the school system handles public information requests.
The state legislators largely agree that the concerns voiced by community members in recent months about the county's public school system need to be addressed. Whether or not the two education bills — sponsored by Dels. Vanessa Atterbeary and Warren Miller — are the appropriate way to address these concerns is a more divisive issue.
"I think they are certainly well-meaning in their intent to address the concerns," said Del. Clarence Lam, a Democrat from District 12. "From my perspective, I'm still trying to figure out the best path for addressing these concerns."
If passed, Atterbeary's legislation would require five members of the school board to be elected in the county's five councilmanic districts and the remaining two chosen by voters countywide. Currently, all seven members of the school board are elected at-large.
The sophomore delegate said that her bill would alleviate the issue, heard most recently at a delegation hearing and an education town hall in December, that parents do not know which board member to turn to for help with school system matters.
"My bill is all about accountability, openness and transparency," said the Democrat, who represents District 13, which includes the southern part of Howard County.
Under a concept known as "local courtesy," if either of these education bills is supported by a majority of the county's delegates and state senators, the General Assembly would vote to approve it. The state legislative session starts Jan. 13.
Del. Shane Pendergrass, who also represents District 13, said that districted elections would make board members more accessible and accountable to the communities they represent.
"I was on the first [county council] that was districted, and I recall how grateful those people in the communities were that they knew there was one person they should go to," the Democrat said, drawing on her own experience serving on the Howard County Council from 1986 to 1994. "Not five people, but one person who they believed they could come to and that person would listen to them and not necessarily agree with them, but it was my job to listen to them and to understand their perspective."
Others argue that districting would cause the board to become parochial, its members too focused on their own communities.
"We need a bigger picture for the schools," said Sen. Gail Bates. The Republican from District 9, which covers western Howard County, said that she has not decided whether or not she will support Atterbeary's legislation.
"I think [the board members] have to look at the school system as a whole," she said.
Pendergrass and Sen. Guy Guzzone questioned why districted school board members would not be able to look at the county as a whole when, according to their experiences, members of the County Council, who are elected by district, do that.
"People who have criticized the bill are worried about members not being able to think broadly for the whole county," said Guzzone, a Democrat from District 13. "My experience on the county council for eight years was really the opposite of that. I think it's very possible. When you're in that position, you have a responsibility to constituents. You also know you're responsible to the whole county."
Pendergrass dismissed the issue of parochialism using an argument that others have made in opposition to the bill, that the county's councilmanic districts do not align with its school districts.
"One of the things that puzzled me as I sat in front of the testimony in opposition to the bill ... was that this is a terrible idea because people will only represent their own districts," she said, referring to the delegation hearing in early December. "But they can't be too parochial if they're representing people who are coming in and going out and people who live outside of their school district."
For Del. Robert Flanagan, a Republican representing District 9B, the fact that the county's school districts run across its council boundaries is a sticking point.
"Let's say you're a parent and you care about the particular high school program that your kids are going to," he said. "You would be pretty surprised and upset to find out that your vote was being cast for a member of the board who had no connection with your kid's high school, because your kid's high school was in somebody else's district."
Flanagan said that students from his legislative district attend four high schools, but that only one of those high schools is in the councilmanic district that encompasses his constituents.
"I agree with the diagnosis, that people feel detached from the Board of Education," he said. "But I strongly disagree with this cure."
Targeted at transparency
Del. Miller's bill seeks to address another concern about the county's school system — its alleged lack of transparency and openness.
The legislation would put up barriers to the school system's denial of public information requests, such as requiring the school system's public records custodian to sign an oath every time the system reports that a requested document does not exist. It would also require school officials to seek court approval before refusing to release an interagency memorandum and to go to the state's attorney general to withhold documents under exceptions to the Public Information Act.
While Howard delegation members say the school system's lack of transparency is a legitimate concern that they have heard from many community members in recent months, they are not sure how and if the bill would solve this issue.
"Obviously openness and transparency are all good things, but we're trying to figure out exactly what are the full implications and the true details of the bill," Guzzone said. "What will be required and who will it be required of?"
"I have to look at it really carefully," said Pendergrass. "I need to go through the process of understanding the difference and understanding how [the school system] will be treated differently."
Lam questioned if it is fair to add another layer of public information restrictions, on top of the Maryland Public Information Act, to the county's school system.
"If they're not meeting federal and state requirements, we need to look at what we need to do," he said. "But is the solution that we add another layer of requirements?"
Several of the county's legislators are waiting for the Howard delegation to discuss and tweak Miller's bill during the legislative session before deciding whether or not to support it.
"I will listen to the discussion in delegation before making a final decision," Bates said. "For me the devil is always in the details."