Howard's school choice

One of the great ironies of education reform in Maryland is that for all the standardization and testing directed at the classroom, the one place where there's no clear-cut formula for success is how school boards should be selected. Some boards are elected by voters (with candidates running at-large or by district), some are appointed (or appointed and then affirmed by vote) while others are hybrids of the two.

There are arguments for and against various approaches, and the fact that so many of Maryland's public schools and school systems are well-regarded nationally (regardless of their governance structure) suggests that no one selection process is right for all. Rather, it depends on the circumstances and needs of each jurisdiction.

Howard County's public schools, among the best in the state, could soon be facing a significant change in how school board members are selected. Given the system's top standing, that may seem unwarranted. But on closer inspection, the schools face challenges — both difficult and long standing — that might be better addressed by a change in leadership.

That's because as high-achieving as many of Howard's schools are, the county also has schools that are far less successful and perennially so. Most of these schools can be found in the county's older, less affluent and more minority-populated communities east of U.S. 29 such as Elkridge and Laurel. It is likely no coincidence that the vast majority of school board members are from neighbors located west of the north-south highway.

This lack of diversity (both geographic and racial) on Howard's school board, where all seven members are elected at-large to 4-year terms, is a serious problem for the community and one that's been noted by County Executive Ken Ulman. This summer, he assigned a commission headed by former Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to recommend "structural and systematic alterations that could bring about needed improvements."

Now those resulting recommendations — to elect five board members by council district and have two appointed — have been endorsed by Mr. Ulman and will next be presented to the General Assembly in October. They are controversial (the current school board opposes them), but on balance, they would appear to move the county in the right direction.

That's because the reforms would almost certainly bring more diversity to the board and make seeking the office far less onerous a burden than running for a seat countywide. The two appointed positions would also give the county executive (and council, which would have to approve the appointees) an opportunity to have a voice on the board as well — not a small consideration given that the county provides more than half of school funding.

Critics fear that by representing districts, board members might act on parochial concerns but not in the greater interest of the school system. But we have not found that to be the case in the half-dozen Maryland counties that have adopted such a system. There is also apprehension about a hybrid panel as potentially fractious — that conflicts might arise between those elected and those appointed, for instance — but that, too, seems overstated.

Perhaps the most compelling case for the status quo is the classic (with apologies to educators), "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." But the fact is, the chronic disparities in the school system do suggest something is broken. That the current board lacks a single African-American or Hispanic member in a county where those groups make up 29 percent of the student population, and minority students of all kinds represent a majority, should be troubling to county residents, too.

Mr. Ulman deserves credit for his willingness to tackle the school board issue, given the strong feelings his actions are likely to stir among voters. Howard County residents care passionately about their schools, and some are likely to view change, particularly reforms opposed by sitting board members, with suspicion no matter how well intended they are.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz should take a lesson from this. Baltimore County officials are mulling over school board governance, too, but an advisory commission ruled out electing members (currently, all are appointed) without even seriously discussing the matter. That's a questionable choice given concerns among county residents over accountability and leadership that have cropped up in recent years.

A hybrid model similar to the Grasmick panel's recommendation for Howard might work for Baltimore County — particularly if councilmanic districts are followed and assure minority representation. But that will require a measure of political courage on the part of a county executive whose focus so far seems mostly on balancing the budget and not on challenging the authority of the current board or Superintendent Joseph A. Hairston.

Although they are coming at the issue from opposite ends of the governance spectrum, the issue is essentially the same in Howard and Baltimore counties — finding a board structure that reflects the community and responds to its concerns. More than a decade ago, a study group commissioned by Howard County's school board looked at these same issues and drew opposite conclusions as the Grasmick report. But a rather prescient dissenting opinion offered at the time effectively summarized the feelings of those disenfranchised by at-large elections, and could also serve to describe the frustrations of Baltimore County parents who feel shut out: "A more fair and equitable method of electing school board members, whether by school districts, councilmanic districts or proportional representation, is long overdue." That's still just as true today.

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