School board under fire

The Baltimore Sun

Harford County parents and other community members will have a chance to voice their opinions on whether the school board should be elected or appointed in a public hearing Tuesday.

The issue is not new to Harford. Last year, Harford County Republican Del. Barry Glassman drafted a bill that would have phased in an elected board, but the measure was stymied in committee. Harford's legislative delegation and the County Council will hold a two-hour hearing at 6 p.m. in council chambers.

"The public will be allowed to testify on their concerns, but there will be no debate," Billy Boniface, council president, said in a meeting last week. "This is a time for us to listen to the public's concerns."

Dissatisfied parents have asked for an elected school board in recent years. Contentious issues such as redistricting, crowding and school schedules have struck a nerve, but the underlying perception is that parents lack access to the board and have no input.

Bel Air High School PTSA President Cindy Mumby said she is not trying to get rid of current board members, but she and like-minded parents want more involvement.

"The common thread is this desire to be connected to public schools in a meaningful way -- because we are the owners and customers of the public schools," she said. "It's our tax dollars and it's our children. Of course we want some meaningful involvement."

The seven-member council has unanimously endorsed changing the school's appointed board to an elected one.

Most Maryland school boards are elected. Of the 24 school boards in Maryland, seven of them, including Harford County's, are appointed by the governor, typically to five-year terms.

In May, Harford Board of Education President Mark Wolkow and former President Ruth Rich were reappointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

"If school board members are appointed by the governor, they are accountable to the governor," Mumby said. "They're not accountable to taxpayers, parents and students."

Wolkow disputed the statement.

"When people say they want more accountability, they're not referring to accountability. They're talking about decisions, about the way they want them to be made," he said. "The job of the Board of Education is to serve the needs of all students, not just a particular group. We're going to make decisions that some people will not like. We're not going to please people all the time."

Some parents say their concerns and comments are frequently ignored or dismissed.

Cari Bieber, a parent who wrote letters about the crowding at Aberdeen High School to every board member, said she never received a response from any of them.

"I sent a letter to [Superintendent Jacqueline C.] Haas and the Board of Education, which, by the way, you have to go through Don Morrison," Bieber said. "You can't even contact them."

Morrison, the spokesman for Harford County schools, said mail is delivered directly to the addressee. E-mails generally come to him because his address is on the schools' Web site, but he forwards them to the appropriate administrator, he said.

Larry English, a Fallston parent, said he asked repeatedly for a meeting with board members to discuss redistricting but never got one.

Troy Shuman, a junior at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air, first approached the board to critique the new block schedule. Last month, he went to the board again when he learned that Christopher Battaglia, his assistant principal, would be transferred. Nearly a hundred Wright students and parents crammed a board meeting to request that the popular assistant principal remain at their school.

"I learned that the board wasn't elected," Shuman said. "They had no reason to listen to us. That sparked my problem with the way things are run right now."

Wolkow said the Board of Education did not get involved in the Battaglia controversy because it was an administrative matter to be handled by the superintendent.

The board, he said, is charged with policy and budget issues, and should not get involved with operational matters.

"They have to remember the Board of Education has nothing to do with that," Wolkow said. "The superintendent has to be allowed to run her personnel the way she wants. We can't interfere with that."

Battaglia said he will be a social studies teacher at Wright next year and fears he will suffer a pay cut. He said he is no longer allowed to participate in the popular freshman mentorship program he engineered.

Kathleen King, a Wright parent, called the situation "sickening."

"We wonder if this has all come down on his head because of us," she said. "People still love him, and it's such a shame what they're doing."

Morrison would not answer questions about Battaglia and only said, "Chris Battaglia is currently an assistant principal at C. Milton Wright."

In anonymous self-evaluations, Harford school board members wrote that they are perceived as "aloof and unresponsive" and listed communication as a major weakness. Some of them blamed the battered community relations on the "openly hostile nature of the local press."

Board members defined their strengths as "making the right decisions/conclusions."

Board member Rich said the board has to make difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions on issues such as redistricting.

"Every time we make a decision, we anger somebody," Rich said. "It's a no-win position. I think that's why it's appointed. You wouldn't be able to make any decisions if you're worried about who's voting for you."

Rich said people who approve of an appointed school board probably won't attend the hearing Tuesday night.

Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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