School board bill running out of time

The Baltimore Sun

With the General Assembly scheduled to adjourn tomorrow night, several Harford delegates are racing against time to push for a bill that would create a blended school board in the county.

If the bill is not approved by the House and Senate, and signed into law, this would be the second consecutive year that the measure has failed.

The fate of Senate Bill 306, which would bring a majority-elected school board to Harford County, remained in a House Ways and Means committee last week.

The bill, co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Barry Glassman and Andy Harris, would phase in six elected members and three appointed members on the school board.

The Harford County Board of Education now has seven members who are appointed by the governor to five-year terms.

On March 13, Bill 306 passed the Senate in a 45-to-0 vote, then headed to the House.

Seven of the eight Harford delegates voted to back the bill. Del. Mary-Dulany James of District 34A was absent from the vote because of another obligation, she said.

When asked how she would have voted, James said, "I don't know. No one ever discussed the amendments. This was not done in consultation. This was unilaterally done by Glassman."

In a hearing Wednesday, Glassman urged a House Ways and Means committee to move the bill.

"I believe this is a consensus bill, and we have the support of the majority of the stakeholders involved," he said.

The bill, which is also backed by three Harford state senators and six of the seven County Council members, should receive local courtesy, supporters say.

"It's local legislation usually afforded local courtesy," said Del. Pat McDonough of District 7. "For some mysterious reasons, one of the delegates, who is a Democrat, ... does not support the bill. She's using her power to overcome local courtesy and the wishes of the people of Harford County."

James said she doesn't respond to rumors.

The Senate bill was originally pitched as a seven-member all-elected school board. But after the county's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said minorities would not be able to win school board seats in county elections, three appointed seats were added to the bill.

James said the blended school board bill is not a compromise.

"The school board is the primary objector as well as the NAACP and neither of those were talked to at all," she said. "If Glassman wanted to work a compromise, he would've gone to those people."

The Harford County school board supports the gubernatorial appointment process, with modifications to allow certain community groups to recommend nominees.

Lee Merrell has been the only school board member who has publicly supported the bill, calling it "a reasonable compromise."

Board President Thomas L. Fidler opposes school board elections.

"I'm not suggesting the community is not intelligent or smart enough to elect the right people in the future, but after five years of experience and understanding how the system works, I don't believe an elected position is going to create any due benefit to Harford County schools," he said.

The Board of Education has been criticized for being unresponsive, which led to a public hearing last summer in which more than a hundred people packed the County Council chambers. Seventy percent of those who testified supported an elected school board, according to the hearing record.

In Maryland, 18 of the 24 public school systems have elected school boards. In the United States, 96 percent of school boards are elected, according to a 2002 National School Boards Association survey.

During last year's session, a bill proposed by Glassman for a blended school board died in the House Ways and Means committee because there was opposition from leaders of the House and Senate and a lack of a clear majority among the county's eight delegates.

Although the bill has come further this year, delegates said they've got their work cut out for them in the waning days of the legislature.

"At this point, everything's coming to a bottleneck," said Del. J.B. Jennings of District 7. "Eighty days of work is coming to the last few days of the session."

The House delegation sponsored Bill 779, which is the duplicate of the Senate bill. That bill was voted out of the Ways and Means committee earlier last week and sent to the Senate Rules committee.

Glassman's Senate bill has a better chance, since it has already gone through a vote, said Del. Susan K. McComas, the House delegation's chairwoman.

"It's still possible to get both bills passed," she said last week. "We're going to get it done, hopefully."

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