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Two target school board


Unsatisfied with recommendations by a citizens committee to enlarge the Howard County school board and shorten members' terms, two county officials are considering other changes - such as election by district or appointment of two new members.

If Howard County voters don't elect someone who lives east of U.S. 29 in November, Columbia Del. Frank S. Turner said yesterday that he would again try to have board members elected by district.

"I'm going to look very carefully at the election and see how the results come out," Turner said. "If nobody is represented on the east side of 29, I'll put the bill back in."

County Executive James N. Robey is considering submitting a bill to state legislators that would give him the power to appoint two members of an expanded board, making it seven members. He has argued that allowing the county executive some say in the board's composition would ensure racial and geographic representation from all segments of the county.

"We're talking about it," Robey said yesterday. "My preference has been and always will be to give the county executive the ability to appoint at least two members of the school board."

He said he was "disappointed" at the citizens committee proposal.

Instead of settling the issue, a summer study by the committee added one more recipe to the mix of opinions last week: recommendations for the county's General Assembly delegation to enlarge the five-member board by two, and shorten the six-year terms to four years.

Turner started the contention over the board's composition last year by submitting a bill to Howard legislators calling for the election of board members by County Council district. Turner's move came amid growing concern about enrollment imbalances by race and class among newer and older county schools - and complaints that board members weren't listening. Turner said the board wasn't representative enough of the county's population.

Although roughly half the county's quarter-million residents live east of U.S. 29, no board member does, nor are there any African-American members - despite an 18 percent black enrollment in county schools.

Board members replied that all work hard to represent the entire county, adding that they feared politicians were making a bid for more influence and that district election of members could make their thinking more parochial.

In the end, no changes were made, and the board appointed a citizens committee to examine the board's composition during the summer. Instead of Turner's idea, the committee recommended having a seven-member board with terms reduced from six to four years, but with all members elected countywide.

If one of two board seats up for grabs in the November election is filled by someone who lives east of U.S. 29 (Virginia Charles is the only one of four candidates from that area), Turner said he might go along with the committee.

Having two more members might spur more discussion of issues - such as the proposed 12th county high school, which carries a price tag of $41 million, the Democratic delegate said.

"Why not add space to current high schools?" he said, noting that Oakland Mills High, one of five in his district, has an enrollment of fewer than 1,000 students. The county standard is 1,400 students.

"We've got [an enrollment] bulge for 10 years, then things will level off, and we'll be closing high schools," he said. "Before we build a new high school, we need to do renovations and expansions to existing high schools."

Sandra H. French, the school board chairman, said she could live with the committee's recommendations, but she noted that the board has yet to hear from the public at a hearing and has not discussed the report. A public hearing is scheduled Thursday night at school board headquarters, and a work session and vote by the board is scheduled Oct. 12.

French said the study group was "balanced" and worked hard all summer to hear the opinions and weigh all the factors.

"Rather than being a political issue, citizens just sat down and analyzed the whole [board] structure," she said. The way the board functions "really depends upon the chemistry of the people elected."

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