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Panel advises adding 2 school board seats


A citizens' panel has recommended that two seats be added to the five-member Howard County school board and that the six-year staggered terms be reduced by two years.

In a report presented to the board last night, the Study Group to Review Board of Education Responsibilities and Composition also recommended that board members continue to be elected instead of appointed as has been recently suggested.

The group also said that board candidates should continue to run for at-large seats instead of by district.

Howard has 43,000 students. State law says that school boards must consist of seven members when student populations reach 50,000. Panel members agreed that the change should take place before then.

The panel, which was established by the board in May, is made up of 11 citizens appointed by organizations such as the PTA Council and the County Council, and select senators and delegates.

"We were not experts," said group chairman Gene Shipp, "but it was a hard-working group."

The group was charged with determining whether the board should be restructured.

State Del. Frank S. Turner initiated the public discussion during the last legislative session, though his bill to have board members elected by districts failed.

Over the summer, the group met with 23 individuals, such as board members and elected officials, and had several public meetings to gather information.

Among the issues the group considered, Shipp said, were the historical lack of minority representation on the school board; that no board members live east of U.S. 29, which is commonly referred to as a dividing line in the county; and public perception that the board is inaccessible.

The group also discussed whether the board should have additional staff members, especially to handle inquiries from constituents, Shipp said.

On most issues, the group was in agreement, Shipp said.

But on the election issue, there was some disagreement.

Natalie Woodson, chairwoman of the education committee of the Howard County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a member of the study group, filed a dissent to the report.

In the dissent, Woodson called for "a more fair and equitable method of electing school board members, whether by school districts, councilmanic districts or proportional representation."

Shipp told the board that the election issue was the most difficult for the group.

"Ms. Woodson makes a very compelling ... dissent," Shipp said, "and it is something that needs to be discussed."

Any changes to the board must be approved by the General Assembly, and would require legislation.

Board member Stephen C. Bounds said he is in favor of encouraging the report to be introduced as legislation.

Board member Karen B. Campbell and Sandra H. French, the chairman, expressed concern that electing members for only four years would periodically result in a majority of the board turning over at once.

"I find that the most distressing possibility," Campbell said.

Also last night, the board began discussing Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's fiscal 2002 capital budget request, which includes funds for a 12th high school.

O'Rourke has proposed an $18 million increase over last year's budget.

Board members asked questions about enrollment figures, the timing of building additions to older schools and the proposed size specifications of the new high school.

A public hearing on the capitalplan will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Board of Education headquarters in Ellicott City. A work session has been set for Oct. 12.

At Listening Post last night, a group of parents opposed building the new northeast elementary school adjacent to a former landfill. Republican county Councilmen Allan H. Kittleman and Christopher J. Merdon attended Listening Post and rose from their seats when a parent in the group asked for a show of support.

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