Howard delegate looks to change school board election, again

Tina Bennett, of Columbia, testifies during the proposed local legislation hearing in Howard County prior to the 2019 Maryland General Assembly legislative session.
Tina Bennett, of Columbia, testifies during the proposed local legislation hearing in Howard County prior to the 2019 Maryland General Assembly legislative session. (Jess Nocera / BSMG)

As someone who has run for Howard County Board of Education twice, successfully earning a seat in this month’s election, Vicky Cutroneo said she understands how “incredibly difficult” it is to mount a countywide campaign for the nonpartisan race.

Cutroneo is in favor of a proposed state bill that would allow county voters to elect five of the seven school board members by councilmanic districts, with the remaining two members elected at large.


“I ran the first time with a lot of publicity and I still didn’t win,” Cutroneo said. “This time I had the [teachers] union support, which was huge, but I think running by district makes your less reliant on big organizational support.”

More than 20 people testified in support of the bill that would allow Howard County to place a fee on plastic bags. One person testified against the bill as it was written for concern it would place onerous tasks on retailers.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Democrat who represents Howard County in the legislature, is again sponsoring a bill to change the way school board members are elected.


Atterbeary’s similar bill in 2016 failed to clear the legislature and last year, her bill that altered the terms of some board members passed.

The top two candidates with the most votes in the November election, Cutroneo and Chao Wu, received the traditional four-year term and the third and fourth place winners, Jen Mallo and Sabina Taj will each serve a two-year term, according to Cutroneo.

Howard residents had an opportunity to testify on proposed legislation that would go before the Maryland General Assembly, including changes to the school board election, during a public hearing Monday night at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

Cindy Vaillancourt, the outgoing school board chairwoman, testified that the current school board will not take a position on the proposed bill, leaving it to the incoming board. The new board is to be sworn in Dec. 3.

Vaillancourt personally backs the bill.

“My support for this initiative was for people of more varied economic backgrounds to launch a campaign,” she said. “Countywide races are expensive … it precludes people from varied socioeconomic backgrounds from even trying.”

Colleen Morris, president of the teachers union, spoke in support of the bill during Monday’s hearing.

With the first wave of absentee ballots trickling in from the November general election, there is no shift in the outcome of the school board race.

The teachers union supported the bill two years ago because “it made sense, it’s the way the County Council has gone due to the growth in our county,” Morris said.

The teachers union traditionally endorses school board candidates during election cycles.

“We do believe that everyone who runs for the Board of Education does have the best interest for all students when they run,” Morris said.

While each candidate comes in with their own strengths and expertise, Morris said she doesn’t believe candidates would only apply them to their respective district but throughout the county.

Cutroneo, who did not testify Monday night, echoed Morris, saying “I don’t think people getting in on the Board of Education only do it to serve one part of the county.”


Robert Miller, a Columbia resident who unsuccessfully ran for a school board seat this month, urged the delegation to “not leap before you look.”

Citing that the “negatives outweigh the positives,” Miller gave an example of how parents who live in one district but have a student, or students, who attend a county public school in different district due to various reasons — including JumpStart, a program offered at specific county high schools that allows students to earn college credits — would not be able to vote for the candidate in their child’s school district.

Miller also noted that moving to district seats could unseat current board members if two of them live in the same district.

“I want to vote for the best candidates, whether they live in my district,” Miller said.

It would be up to the school board candidate to either run for a district or at-large seat, Atterbeary has said.

If passed, the bill would apply starting with the 2020 election, according to the proposed legislation.

The legislative session begins Jan. 9.

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