The tension over Anne Arundel County's school board, which this spring became all white for the first time since the civil rights era, came to a head in two ways this week. First, Gov. Larry Hogan corrected his earlier error by appointing Eric Grannon, an African-American lawyer from Davidsonville, to one of the seats on the board. And second, the state Senate moved toward passage of legislation that would significantly diminish the governor's role in the process of filling seats in the future. The bill, which already passed the House of Delegates in a slightly different form, is designed to increase the diversity of the nominating commission that vets candidates for seats on the board — certainly a laudable goal. But in doing so, it goes too far to dilute public accountability.
Anne Arundel is one of only a few school districts in Maryland whose board members are appointed rather than elected, and its process is like no other in the state. For years, a nominating convention of as many as 150 people vetted candidates and forwarded names to the governor, but he was not required to choose among them, and in 2002, then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening surprised and angered many by passing over the convention's choices to appoint an ally of then-County Executive Janet Owens. John Leopold tried for several years when he was a delegate to change the process, and he finally succeeded after being elected county executive. Legislation he backed created a slimmed down nominating committee with seats filled by the governor, executive and representatives of groups with a stake in the system, such as the teachers' union, the PTA and the Chamber of Commerce. The bill required that the governor choose from among the candidates it recommends, and it set up a retention-election system for board members. (To date, all members have been retained by the voters.)
The nominating commission has been a locus of intense drama during the last year. After Governor Hogan and County Executive Steve Schuh — a fellow Republican whose 2014 campaign dealt extensively with education issues — named their representatives to the nominating commission, Mr. Schuh requested that the governor re-start the process for two seats for which the commission had already made recommendations. The commission then voted to change its procedures to allow nominees to be sent to the governor if they are approved by a simple majority of the commission rather than a super-majority. The commission's representative from the countywide Chamber of Commerce voted against that change, and subsequently Mr. Schuh introduced legislation calling for the business community's seat to rotate among the county's six chambers of commerce every two years. (A Schuh spokesman insisted at the time that the two events were unrelated.)
In February, after Mr. Hogan declined to reappoint Solon Webb, who was the only black school board member, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and others in the Arundel delegation used Mr. Schuh's bill as a vehicle for broader changes to the commission. It gives the county executive three appointees to the commission but also adds one seat each for representatives from the NAACP, Casa de Maryland and the Anne Arundel Special Education Citizens' Advisory Committee. It retains both the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce seat and one to be rotated among local chambers, and it adds another for the county PTAs.
Mr. Busch says the point of the legislation is to ensure that those vetting school board candidates reflect the district's diversity. Enrollment in Arundel's school system is now about 40 percent minority, he said, and having representatives from organizations like the NAACP and Casa will not only help recruit a more diverse field of candidates but will also ensure that all those who seek posts on the board will be asked their views on issues important to minority communities. The same goes for adding a seat for parents of special education students.
That's a good idea, and it mirrors elements of the recently created Baltimore County school board nominating commission. But by skewing the commission so heavily to representatives of individual interest groups (worthy though they are) and away from those selected by elected officials, it goes too far in diminishing the role of those who answer to the broader community.
There has been a great deal of debate throughout the state in recent years about school governance, and the trend has run toward more direct accountability, whether through elected or hybrid elected/appointed boards, or through vesting more control in local officials, as happened in Prince George's County and is being pushed by a number of mayoral candidates in Baltimore City. Whether it's the governor or county executive or a combination of the two, someone who answers broadly to the voters ought to have a substantial role in the vetting process for Arundel school board candidates.
That's what happens in Baltimore County, where the governor, in consultation with the executive, appoints eight of 19 nominating commission members, and the executive picks a ninth. Sen. Edward R. Reilly, an Anne Arundel Republican, proposed something similar, that five of 18 seats on his county's commission be picked by the governor and three by the executive — a substantial number but short of a majority. His amendment was defeated in the Senate, which also injected itself into the process by amending the bill to require Senate confirmation of school board members — something that currently happens in only one Maryland county (Caroline).
As the House and Senate work to reconcile their versions of the legislation, they should dump Senate confirmation and adopt Mr. Reilly's proposal. The selection process for the Arundel school board should foster both diversity and accountability, and that would strike the right balance.