Community debates changing school board

The Baltimore Sun

It wasn't the inquisition that one school board member had expected.

A majority of the community speakers at a public hearing Tuesday recommended that the county make the move from an appointed school board to an elected or a blended one. Nearly a quarter of the people who wanted to speak at the two-hour hearing remarked on a sign-in sheet that they opposed an elected school board.

The tone of the evening was civil. At times, impassioned speakers raised their voices and pleaded their points, generating applause.

State delegates representing Harford County and the County Council members held the public hearing about whether the school board should be elected or appointed. Now, the governor appoints school board members to a five-year term.

Critics of the appointment process accuse the school board of "rubber stamping" decisions by the school administration and disregarding community opinion. Many aired a litany of grievances that included redistricting, crowding, block scheduling and a controversial elementary math program.

"There is no correlation between the concerns and the problems being solved," said Mary Ann Lisanti, the only council member opposed to an elected board. "We are talking about policy issues, responsiveness and capital construction projects."

Arthur Kaff, a Bel Air resident, said residents are disenfranchised.

"The notion is offensive, that we, the voters in Harford County don't have the sophistication to elect top-notch school board members," Kaff said.

According to a 2002 National School Boards Association survey, 96 percent of school boards in the United States are elected.

School board elections will politicize the education system with money and special interests, and turn the seats into a political stepping stone for higher office, say critics of an elected school board.

"Elected school boards may include single-agenda members, who can cause a meltdown," said Gary Ambridge, a former educator. "A school district suffers when the community breaks into political factions or focus on one issue such as evolution" in Kansas.

Despite disagreements, there was one underlying consensus: The current board selection process in Harford County shuts out the public. The question of how to resolve that disconnect has become a point of contention.

"I would like a board member to be appointed by the county executive, so it's provided within the county," said school board member John Smilko. "This way, county executive is responsible for the member that he picks. He's accountable to the same voters."

Smilko, who had joked that the hearing would be like an inquisition, said he was surprised to hear from supporters of an appointed board.

Republican Del. Barry Glassman proposed a bill that would have phased in an elected school board, but it never got out of committee during the past session of the General Assembly. The school board selection issue might be put to a referendum vote, he said.

"It's not a vocal minority," Glassman said of the people advocating for an elected school board. "There are lots of people upset about the new math and the block schedule. Policy questions are driving this."

Some suggested that the school board members should be selected through the nominating caucus. For decades, the Harford County Permanent Nominating Caucus interviewed prospective school board members and submitted a list of nominees to the governor. But the caucus, made up of PTA members and other civic groups, disbanded when governors began ignoring the nominee list. Some recommended reviving the caucus with a provision that the governor must select one of the recommended nominees.

"I strongly endorse the reconstitution of the permanent nominating caucus," said Sandra Tracy, a retired Harford teacher. "It worked well for us for many years."

Jansen Robinson, president of the Edgewood Community Board, raised questions about the exclusivity of a caucus.

"Who defines who is a key community member or special interest group in Harford County?" Robinson said. "Who determines who gets to participate in this process? Why and why not?"

Members of the County Council and the state delegation plan to hold work sessions in July and September with stakeholders, such as PTAs and teachers associations.

"The public has brought forth serious issues that need addressing," Lisanti said. "This whole concept requires a task force of stakeholders that will decide what the community wants and how to get there."

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