The General Assembly passed legislation Monday afternoon creating an elected school board for Anne Arundel County, ending years of back-and-forth about the best way to select the body that makes policy and budgeting decisions for local public schools.
The vote came on Sine Die, the finale of the assembly's 90-day legislative session, which ends at midnight on Monday.
With the legislature's endorsement, the bill will head to the desk of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who is not expected to oppose the change. If Hogan signs the measure into law, Anne Arundel voters will see the names of Board of Education candidates on their ballots in the 2018 election.
Anne Arundel Delegation Chairwoman Pam Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said it was time to "turn responsibility over to the voters."
Beidle said she's been working on school board issues for the past five years. Last session, she helped craft a law shuffling the membership of the county's School Board Nominating Commission, the group that helps select board members under the existing system. Commissioners interview candidates and send recommendations to the governor, who makes the final appointments.
Changes to the nominating commission, which included removing the governor's appointees and adding new representatives of parent and minority community groups, touched off fierce partisan debate last session culminating in a lawsuit that unsuccessfully challenged the law's constitutionality. Many legislators returned this year convinced that it was time for a change.
The bill they passed Monday creates an eight-person board made up of seven members elected by councilmanic district and one student member of the board. The measure prevailed over a competing proposal for a hybrid board, which suggested electing seven members, appointing three and preserving the student member's seat.
New members will be phased into the elected board through a staggered process. Members from council districts 1, 4, 5 and 7 will be elected to a one-time six-year term in 2018, and members from council districts 2, 3 and 6 will be elected to a four-year term in 2020. Starting in 2024, all seven members will be elected to four-year terms. Elections will be nonpartisan.
Because the elected school board proposal calls for eight members rather than nine, actions will require five votes to pass. The student member of the board will retain his or her full voting rights.
State Sen. Bryan Simonaire, a Pasadena Republican who sponsored the hybrid proposal before agreeing to support an elected board, said the measure gives "the people a direct voice in the process."
Like Beidle, he noted the idea has been a long time in the making.
For decades, there have been calls for an elected school board from various corners of the county. The concept has been promoted by parent advocates, council members and state lawmakers, including County Executive Steve Schuh, who as a delegate introduced legislation to elect school board members.
Schuh, a Republican, called the bill's passage "an incredibly exciting and satisfying moment" that would result in more accountability of board members to Anne Arundel voters.
"Many of us have been pushing for an elected school board for a decade, and to see it now becoming a reality is wonderful news for Anne Arundel County," he said. "Everything has its time, and the time was now — when everybody came together and saw the wisdom of it; that it's a better way to govern our school system."
Earlier this session, Schuh had supported a bill from Del. Sid Saab, R-Crownsville, that would have seen seven members elected by councilmanic district, one appointed by the county executive and one student member. The county executive later proposed expanding the appointments to three: one for the executive, one for the County Council and one for the state delegation.
He said that option would have reflected the ratio of school funding, about two-thirds of which comes from the county and one-third from the state. It could also have provided a backstop in case elected members don't have educational experience or reflect the county's racial diversity.
"Sometimes elections lead to anomalies, and it is very possible that one day we could have a school board that has no minorities or no men or no women, and a small appointed component to a board creates an opportunity to address any shortcomings," he said. "The General Assembly felt differently, and a wholly elected school board is a dramatically better situation than we have today."
Saab, who voluntarily withdrew his bill to support a fully elected board after it became apparent that proposal had more support, called the vote "a huge victory."
"I never thought the day would come," he said.
The school board did not take an official position on the change, though board Vice President Julie Hummer told legislators last fall that effective board members approach the role with the understanding that "our mission is to work together for all students, not just those from our individual community."
Concerns about parochialism and the further encroachment of politics have been some of the main arguments against an elected school board.
House Speaker Michael Busch, an Annapolis Democrat who for years supported the appointment process, he's always been of the philosophy that "we get a broader cross-section of people" when members are appointed.
"I think for everybody it'll be an interesting dynamic," he said of the switch to an elected board, "because I think that with an elected school board all coming out of councilmanic districts, they'll all be a little more parochial in the way they look at things, rather than a countywide perspective. They'll respond to their constituents and I don't know whether that's going to be good or bad."
Busch decided to support an elected board after witnessing last session's partisan drama.
"The handwriting was on the wall," he said.