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School board bill dropped

The Baltimore Sun

A Pasadena legislator is dropping his bid to have a directly elected school board in Anne Arundel County, after failing to muster enough support among his colleagues.

At this morning's meeting of the five-member county Senate delegation, freshman Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire plans to ask for a task force to study the issue over the summer, but supporters of a competing bill say that after more than 20 years of debate, the county's legislative delegation isn't going to sit on this issue any longer.

Sen. John C. Astle is expected to call for a vote on his bill that would require the governor to select school board members from a nomination list. The Annapolis Democrat, who is also the head of the Senate delegation, has dubbed it the "compromise" bill because it is designed to appease critics of the current law, which allows the governor to choose from the list, or ignore it entirely and designate his own appointees.

His bill, introduced at the behest of County Executive John R. Leopold, would also give voters the chance to veto unpopular school board members.

Simonaire, a Republican, had proposed requiring a 2008 referendum on whether to create an elected school board on a staggered election schedule. He said he realized it wouldn't pass after the 15-member full county delegation debated the competing bills on Monday.

The swing vote was Democratic Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr. of Glen Burnie, who said there is no reason to have an elected school board without the power to levy taxes. DeGrange stopped short on Wednesday of saying whether he would approve Astle's bill, but said he was tired of waiting for action on the issue.

Astle was not available for comment yesterday.

Saying their constituents are demanding the ability to choose school board members, Harford and Baltimore counties, as well as Baltimore City, have also taken up the issue this year. Several counties have gotten the green light in recent years to begin electing board members, and by 2008 just six of the state's 24 jurisdictions will have an appointed school board.

The removal of Simonaire's bill clears the way for the county's legislators to rally behind the one bill. If the delegation approves Astle's bill, the General Assembly is likely to approve it, a practice called local courtesy.

Under Astle's bill, the school board nominating commission would be made up of five members appointed by the governor and six selected by the county executive, the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, the county Council of Parent Teacher Associations, the Anne Arundel Community College board of trustees and the Association of Education Leaders. Voters would have to approve a second term for the school board members.

Simonaire said he objects to the measure because it gives the governor too much power by allowing him to hand pick nearly half of the members on the nomination commission. He said he will try to amend Astle's bill to allow the six organizations to appoint two members each to the nominating commission.

Another amendment he's seeking would require limits on who can serve in the two at-large seats on the eight-member board and allow voters to support write-in candidates to replace school board members.

Simonaire said he thinks he could get enough support for a task force to study these ideas. He said the public overwhelmingly supports a directly elected school board. He said his bill's backers included the League of Women Voters, the Parent Teacher Association and the chairman of the County Council. Astle's bill has the support of the Chamber of Commerce, along with Leopold

Alan Friedman, director of government relations for Leopold, was skeptical of the amendments to Astle's bill. Adding members to the nomination commission would make it too large and unwieldy. In addition, the governor's appointees to the commission are not puppets who act at the bidding of the governor, Friedman said.

He also rejected the idea of a task force, saying, "This is an issue that has been debated for 24 years, and I think everybody feels we've waited long enough."

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