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Harford's school board lesson


The permanent nominating caucus, used for 33 years to screen and select candidates for the Harford County Board of Education, has never been a perfect mechanism.

The caucus is open to any group that pays the modest annual dues and votes. While this appears most democratic, it can also lend itself to undemocratic manipulation by narrow interest groups.

Crying foul, the teachers' union and the county PTA council claim this month's nominating caucus was rigged, and that balloting safeguards were lax, resulting in selection of a religious conservative for the Bel Air seat.

They don't object to the balloting process used for years; the alleged errors are minor. Rather, they oppose the views of H. Everett Smith, a former school teacher, who got more votes than Anne D. Sterling, the incumbent school board president.

But the caucus can only choose nominees. No matter how scrupulously the caucus questions and studies candidates, no matter how carefully it conducts the balloting, the governor can appoint anyone. In current practice, the governor consults with the district's senator and with his party's state central committee before making the appointment.

Unwise selections by the caucus -- it submits two names for consideration -- can be thrown out by the governor. But political considerations can overturn wise selections, too. In Cecil

County, the recent caucus overwhelmingly endorsed a Harford school teacher for the open school board seat, but the runner-up is favored by county political powers and is likely to get the appointment.

Proposals for a locally elected school board, or locally appointed, have been futilely advanced for three years by state Sen. Habern Freeman. Those proposals now deserve close examination by the entire county, not just by other legislators.

An elected school board that lacks taxation authority is a bad idea; it leads to political demagogy, teacher union influence, and a wasteful election that does not serve the needs of education.

But local selection of the school board is a sound goal. A county nominating caucus to actively screen (and seek out) board candidates, not just to take an annual vote, would be one possibility. From the caucus' list of nominees, appointments could be made by the county executive and the county council. This is one way to bring school board control back to Harford, eliminating the Annapolis pols and giving the countywide caucus a more defined and more responsible role.

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