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Balto. Co. should have a hybrid school board [Editorial]

When debate over changing the composition of Baltimore County's school board last gained traction in the General Assembly, parents had a long list of grievances against then-Superintendent Joe A. Hairston and a board rightly viewed as overly deferential to him. Among other things, Mr. Hairston had appeared completely oblivious to the views of those he was supposed to be serving — the parents and children of Baltimore County — on matters ranging from the lack of air conditioning at Ridgely Middle School to the canceling of PTA craft fairs, and the board failed to adequately address the debacle in which he mandated a shift to a time-consuming, proprietary grading system developed by his top deputy.

Things aren't quite that bad now, but neither are they so much better as we had hoped would be the case under a new superintendent and school board president. The old grievances are back in a different form: Parents and students are complaining loudly that Superintendent Dallas Dance is acting without listening to them (or anyone else) and that the board under the leadership of President Larry Schmidt is exercising no meaningful oversight. Mr. Dance has come under fire for changes to the high school schedule, his implementation of new curriculum and his decision to move rapidly into an initiative to put laptops in every student's hands within the next few years at a time when the system is already under strain to deal with changes wrought by new teacher evaluations, standardized testing and the Common Core standards. Meanwhile, Mr. Schmidt rankled many with a letter explaining his reluctance to second-guess Mr. Dance on the high school schedule shift or other matters of what he views as day-to-day management of the system.

In the meantime, lawmakers in Annapolis have come up with what appears to be the best proposal to date for changing the composition of the county's school board. A consensus appears to be developing around the idea of having seven elected members of the board, four appointed members and a student member, starting in 2018. Support also appears to be building for changing the way the appointed members are selected. Now, the governor appoints all 12 members of the board (one each from the seven county council districts, four at-large and one student member) upon the recommendation of the county executive. Lawmakers are also building in elements of a proposal from Del. Adrienne A. Jones, who represents the county's west side, to create a nominating commission for those appointed seats that would include a diverse array of perspectives.

Critics of proposals for an all-elected school board in the county have noted that using councilmanic districts as the basis for election would almost certainly produce a body that was unrepresentative of the district, where a majority of students are now minorities. (One might also note that having seven council districts in an increasingly diverse county of 817,000 also fails to produce a demographically representative government, but that's another story.) At the same time, creating special districts for school board elections, as has been proposed in the past, would be a logistical nightmare. A hybrid system along the lines of the one now being considered solves that problem, particularly if combined with the idea of a nominating commission.

There are other reasons for caution about elected or partially elected school boards. In Maryland, school boards don't have the power to levy taxes (as they do in many states), so there could be a misalignment between elected board members' willingness to advocate for more spending with their lack of responsibility for finding a way to pay for it. Elections could introduce politics into education policy, and those who run for seats on the board may do so more out of a desire to use the post as a steppingstone to higher office rather than out of a full commitment to education. Moving to a hybrid system may solve some problems and create others.

That said, the desire for elected members on the school board in Baltimore County has been so consistent for so long that it cannot be ignored. Given that there are pros and cons to all of the possible configurations for a school board, it is hard to argue against one that allows for the direct participation of the voters. The lengthy deliberations about this idea appear to have produced a bill that addresses many of the concerns of previous proposals, and the legislature should give the measure its approval.

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