To Howard County parents who testified Tuesday night in support of a state bill that could change the way local school board members are elected, the proposal would bring what they feel is some much needed accountability.
On the other hand, to Howard County public school administrators and school board members who shared their thoughts, the bill would spell partisan disaster for the future of the Board of Education.
"The bill regarding the election of Howard County Board of Education members would undermine the education of the 53,000 students in our system," Superintendent Renee Foose told state delegation members.
The school board election bill, sponsored by Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Columbia Democrat, received much of the attention at Tuesday's public hearing, which focused on local bills that will be introduced at the start of next year's 90-day General Assembly session.
Atterbeary's bill, which was written in collaboration with County Councilman Jon Weinstein, an Ellicott City Democrat, proposes electing five Board of Education members by district and two at-large. Currently, all seven members are elected at-large.
The Board of Education voted last month to oppose the bill. Addressing the delegation, Foose said that if it passed, "this bill would create a partisan board where each board member is elected to represent only a faction of students."
Foose was joined by a half dozen students, including Student Member of the Board Rachel Lin, and multiple Howard County principals in testifying against the legislation. The common thread running through their concerns was of a politicized school board that would prioritize some communities over others, to the detriment of students and their education.
"It has always been my feeling as a teacher and as an administrator that the bottom line is always to consider what is in the best interest of our students," said Mount View Middle School Principal Tammy Goldeisen. "This bill would prevent board members from speaking as one voice in the best interests of our children."
Opponents also pointed out potential technical problems in the bill. Some noted parents might live and vote in a different councilmanic district than where their child goes to school. Board Chairwoman Janet Siddiqui also said holding all Board of Education in the same election year, as the legislation proposes, "would be disastrous for transitions."
Parents who testified said they felt electing school board members by district would increase their accessibility to the community.
"Electing our Board of Education by district will offer better and more complete representation for voters of Howard County," said Leslie Kornreich, of Hanover. "It is the purest definition of representative democracy."
"I want somebody who knows what is going on in my district," said Judy George. "The way it's working now – it's not working."
Parent and former PTA Council of Howard County President Christina Delmont-Small said the current system of electing board members at-large makes it more difficult to replace incumbents.
"Currently we lack a mechanism that allows the voters to change the status quo if they feel the board is not meeting their needs," she said.
Howard County Education Association President Paul Lemle said the teachers' union supports school board elections by district.
"It took a very serious problem at Glenwood Middle School to make people aware that there isn't a sense of personal responsibility on the board," Lemle said, referring to concerns about mold remediation at the west county school.
Part of the problem, according to Lemle, is that voters are not well-informed about the multitude of Board of Education candidates up for election every two years. "Half the voters skip the Board of Education on the ballot – that is because they have no idea who they're voting for," Lemle said. "Give them a district and they're going to make an informed choice."
But two County Council members who testified Tuesday said district-based elections for the school board might not be the best solution.
"People don't feel as though there are board members that they call their own, but I'm not certain this system will solve that," said Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Columbia Democrat who formerly served on the school board. "When we set up districts, we have our district and your district... And when there are very real decisions to be made when you cross those lines, I'm afraid districts would impact those decisions negatively."
Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, suggested creating separate districts for school board elections, which would align with the boundaries of school clusters rather than with those of the council.
"Having it by councilmanic districts is just setting it up for partisan politics," Fox said. "That would be a big, huge mistake."
Other elected officials who spoke at the hearing argued districting has not affected their ability to serve all Howard County constituents fairly.
Weinstein, an Ellicott City Democrat who helped write the bill, pointed out that the majority of school boards in the state already elect candidates by district.
"I'm not particularly sure that the doomsday scenario of election mayhem is a result of this bill," he said. "I am confident in the electorate of Howard County to be able to discern the importance of the Board of Education and to make wise choices on good candidates."
Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a Democrat who represents the southeast county, said the bill's opponents were confounding partisanship with district-based elections. "We aren't talking about changing this to partisan races," she said.
The school board bill was one of 14 local bills prefiled before the 2016 legislative session, which begins Jan. 13. Among the other legislation was a bill aimed at increasing transparency in the school system by more heavily regulating its response to Maryland Public Information Act requests; a bill that would lower the maximum income tax rate; and numerous bond bills requesting funding for renovations and expansions of Howard County institutions.
More than a dozen people, many of them from the Howard County Advocacy Group Against Slavery and Trafficking, also testified in favor of a bill introduced by Del. Robert Flanagan that would give county legislators the ability to regulate local massage parlors.
According to Police Chief Gary Gardner, 10 massage establishments have been the subject of complaints in the last 23 months. "We know from experience and research that these establishments can be a haven for illegal activities, including prostitution and human trafficking," he said.
If the council is able to pass legislation regulating these parlors, which are required by the state to be licensed, police would have more authority to investigate them and take action against illegal practices. The General Assembly has already passed similar laws for Charles and Washington counties.
"With local enforcement of a tough local law, we can look forward to our happy ending to disreputable businesses," said Sara Cochran, lead organizer for Howard County AGAST.
Latest Howard County
The delegation will hold a second public hearing, on statewide legislation, in the coming weeks.