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School board group disbands; Convention that picks Baltimore County nominees feels ignored


Feeling ignored by the political process, Baltimore County's school board nominating convention is disbanding, in a year when a third of the board's positions are up for grabs.

The move at least temporarily suspends operations of the only mechanism for community groups and PTAs to question potential school board members publicly and make recommendations to the governor.

"We should have public input in these appointments because board members should be advocates for the children," said John Ryan, the convention's treasurer. "Without public input, you're opening it up to the political powers that have the most influence."

The group's suspension of operations occurs at a crucial time. This summer, the five-year terms of four members of the 12-member board -- Dunbar Brooks, Paul S. Cunningham, Robert F. Dashiell and Phyllis E. Ettinger -- are set to expire.

Only Dashiell and Ettinger are eligible to be reappointed.

Four years ago, more than 140 groups were members of the nominating convention.

That number had dropped to about 85 last year, and 38 groups had joined this year by Jan. 15.

"Our membership continues to decline, in part, because the majority of appointments to the school board do not reflect the recommendations made by the School

Board Nominating Convention," said Norman Macneal, the group's president, in a letter received by community leaders over the weekend.

Through spokesmen, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger said they seek community input in the school board selection process.

"It is not the governor's intent to discourage the local grass-roots efforts of recommending candidates," said Don Vandrey, a spokesman for Glendening. "The governor welcomes and appreciates the recommendations of the various groups, and he takes them seriously, but he also has to use his own best judgment when he makes his appointments."

Founded in 1962, the School Board Nominating Convention of Baltimore County Inc. aims to give residents a voice in choosing county educational leaders.

Baltimore County is among the half of the Maryland counties that do not elect school board members, relying instead on the governor to make appointments. Most of those counties have nominating conventions or other groups similar to Baltimore County.

Community groups, homeowner associations, local PTAs and other nonprofit organizations may join the convention, allowing them to ask questions during candidate forums and vote on whom to recommend to the governor.

The decline in membership has coincided with a growing number of school board appointments in which former Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Glendening ignored the convention's recommendations. For the most part, Glendening has tended to listen to Ruppersberger and influential delegates and senators when making his appointments.

In 1996 -- months after Glendening ignored six recommendations in appointing two board members -- the convention failed to attract enough members to vote on a candidate.

"When I was talking to PTA presidents this year, 'Why bother?' was the boiled-down summary of their questions, and I didn't really have an answer to that," said Rodger Janssen, a voting member of the convention for Parkville High School's PTA. "Making this political is not doing the students of this county a good service."

In 1998, only two people seeking board positions applied to the convention. Incumbent board member Sanford V. Teplitzky -- who was first appointed by Schaefer without applying through the convention -- applied this time and was reappointed.

The convention's other choice was passed over by the governor in favor of John A. Hayden, who had been a top choice of the convention for three earlier years but had not applied in 1998.

"Going through the convention was a real education," Hayden said. "From the questions and concerns, I learned a lot about many other areas of education. I'm disappointed that won't continue."

In the 1990s, county political leaders have talked about alternatives to the nominating convention. Some have suggested that the county executive appoint board members, a few have advocated switching to an elected school board, and others have recommended that the governor be required by law to pick from among the candidates nominated by the convention.

The convention has been criticized by some for failing to represent all of the county, particularly minority community groups, and sometimes the governor bypassed the recommendations to put more blacks on the school board.

The nominating convention process has struggled in some other large counties. The number of groups participating in Anne Arundel County's school board nominating convention also has declined as the governor has passed over the group's nominees.

Michael H. Davis, a spokesman for Ruppersberger, suggested that interest in the convention has dwindled because the county's conflicts over education in previous administrations have ended.

"The executive has always viewed the convention as advisory, and he talks to a lot of people within the school system on his own before he makes his recommendations to the governor," Davis said. "Let's see how this year goes without the convention before we talk about making any big changes."

In his letter to community groups, convention president Macneal said he hopes the convention can resume operations next year.

Pub Date: 1/26/99

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