Dissatisfied with the handling of the latest round of gubernatorial appointments to the Baltimore County school board, a group of lawmakers is pushing for a change that would make the appointment process to the county board unique among the state's school systems.
A bill, supported by all six of the county's Democratic state senators and opposed by the two Republicans, would require Senate confirmation of the governor's appointments to the county school board, and an accompanying public hearing.
The bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Delores G. Kelley, and another sponsor, Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, said they were prompted in part by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s failure to reappoint the board's vice president, Janese F. Murray, when naming four new members to the board last year. They say the board needs more members like Murray, an African-American who they say understands the needs of the district's rapidly diversifying west side.
"There was no consultation, nothing. She was just basically thrown off the board," Hollinger said at a meeting of the county's senators Thursday. She said she had been checking weekly with the governor's appointments office to make sure that Murray, an executive with CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, would be reappointed. "We were told, 'Don't worry' - and the next thing we know, she was thrown off."
"That kind of language and this kind of bill is inflammatory," replied Republican Sen. Andrew P. Harris. He said the bill goes against the spirit of the civility that Ehrlich requested from General Assembly members during his recent State of the State address.
Proponents of the bill complain that three of the four members appointed last year were not well-known in county education circles, and say state senators are more in touch with the needs of their community's schools than a governor. They also say the public deserves more input in the process. Critics say it would add an unnecessary layer of politics to the appointment process.
Of Maryland's 24 school districts, more than half - including Howard, Carroll and Montgomery counties - have elected school boards. In Anne Arundel County, one of the districts where the governor appoints the board, legislators introduced a bill this week for a referendum on how the board should be selected. In Baltimore and Prince George's County, the mayor and county executive appoint some of the board members, and the governor appoints the others.
For many years in Baltimore County, the public influenced the appointments through a nominating convention, where the governor would pick from among three candidates advanced by the community. The system fell apart after governors, starting with William Donald Schaefer and continuing with Parris N. Glendening, ignored the recommendations.
Hollinger said previous governors usually consulted with senators informally about board appointments. Under Ehrlich, she said, that has not happened.
Kelley, co-chairwoman of the statewide council studying minority student achievement, said she regularly visits the county's west-side schools with high minority enrollment. She said she was upset that the governor did not consider her opinion when making his appointments.
"Somebody who's really studying the issues, who understands the needs, the resources, the structural barriers, ought to be listened to more than our senators on the west side were when the last appointments were made," she said.
Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, said Friday: "The governor welcomes and solicits the insights of the delegation, as he does for every county. But in the end, it is the prerogative of the governor to select whom he believes is most appropriate for the position." He said Ehrlich will not take a position on the bill unless it reaches his desk.
In August, Ehrlich appointed to the Baltimore County board Luis E. Borunda, president of The Signman Inc. and past president and co-founder of the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; Frances A.S. Harris, legislative assistant to two Republican state delegates; Roger C. Janssen, a construction manager for the Maryland Transportation Authority; and Ramona N. Johnson, deputy director of the Fannie Mae Baltimore Partnership Office.
Of the four, only Janssen, a longtime official with the county PTA Council, was widely known in education circles.
The appointments resulted in a net loss of one African-American member but the addition of the board's first Latino. There are now two African-Americans on the 12-member board.
The county branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People criticized the choices, calling for a new procedure to select board members. Patricia Ferguson, president of the county chapter, said Friday she is "elated" by Kelley's bill.
Some school board members and community activists said they would like to bring back a nominating convention. Others said the system works well now.
"There doesn't seem to be any reason other than partisan politics to change," said Walter R. Hayes, chairman of the Northeast Area Educational Advisory Council, who has praised Ehrlich for choosing board members willing to tackle school crowding.
"Governor Ehrlich has appointed a diverse group that's open to community input," Hayes said.
Thomas G. Grzymski, who replaced Murray as the board's vice president, said a confirmation process might discourage prospective board members. But board President James R. Sasiadek supports the bill.
Sasiadek said school board applicants need an outlet to explain their views to the public. Of the governor's recent appointees, he added: "We're getting people now who take potshots at the board, who don't show up at things, who have never participated."
Borunda, one of the new board members, said he doesn't pretend to be an insider, but that he and others bring a different perspective to the board.
"I think many people were happy with the status quo," he said. "And when you bring in people from the outside to take a fresh look at what's happening, it does upset some people."
The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on the bill at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
Sun staff writer Liz F. Kay contributed to this article.