Anne Arundel County lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle expressed openness Tuesday to changing the selection process for the county's Board of Education so that at least some of its members are elected.
The remarks, made during a public hearing on the potential for an elected or hybrid board — in which some members are elected and others are appointed — hinted at the possibility that a new approach to the decades-long debate over school board selection might gain traction next legislative session.
"It is time again for us to consider different options and whether another process would better serve Anne Arundel County," said Del. Pam Beidle, D-Linthicum, who chairs the delegation's education subcommittee.
Exactly what that new process might be remains unclear. While several public officials expressed support for a hybrid board, important details — such as how many members would be elected, who would make appointments and how to keep politics from encroaching on school board decisions — still need to be ironed out.
Currently, eight members of the county's Board of Education are appointed to five-year terms by the governor. The board also includes a student member, who serves a one-year term.
Del. Sid Saab, a Crownsville Republican who has submitted bills proposing a hybrid school board in the past two General Assembly sessions, said he plans to take up the cause again when a new session starts in January.
"I'm optimistic we can finally move forward," he said.
The hearing comes after months of political jousting over the makeup of a group that interviews and recommends school board candidates to the governor.
The 11-member commission, which is composed of five gubernatorial appointees, one county executive appointee and representatives from local education interest groups, was created by compromise legislation about a decade ago during former Gov. Martin O'Malley's term.
Last fall, Gov. Larry Hogan replaced O'Malley's Democratic appointees on the commission with Republicans. In February, his decision to appoint new school board members Terry Gilleland and Maria Sasso — marking the first time in decades the school board did not have an African American member among its ranks — sparked an outcry and a push to ensure greater diversity on the board.
This spring, General Assembly Democrats passed a law, over Hogan's veto, seeking to remove the governor's five appointments to the 11-member School Board Nominating Commission and replace them with new members from groups representing parents and minority communities. Democrats said the new representatives would broaden perspectives on the board, while Republicans argued they would expand Democrats' influence.
The measure was promptly challenged in Circuit Court by sitting Hogan appointees, who argue that only the governor has the power to ask them to leave. Circuit Court Judge William C. Mulford agreed, but Attorney General Brian Frosh has appealed his decision on behalf of the General Assembly. The Court of Appeals is expected to take up the case in November.
A separate lawsuit, in which commission members who represent the teachers union and other local groups are attempting to block earlier-than-usual appointments for two school board seats that don't come open until July 1, 2017, is also awaiting a final verdict.
The nominating commission, chaired by Hogan appointee Jamie Falcon, has submitted six recommendations to the governor for those seats. Hogan has yet to respond.
The school board selection process has been a perennial concern of Anne Arundel County Republicans, many of whom have long supported a fully elected board or a hybrid of elected and appointed members.
But they've been unable to get legislation changing the process off the ground in recent years. Last session, Saab withdrew his bill proposing a hybrid school board after encountering opposition.
County Executive Steve Schuh, a former state delegate, and Del. Tony McConkey, R-Severna Park, sponsored similar bills in 2013 and 2014. Neither made it to the floor for a vote.
Schuh said this week he supports a hybrid school board but not a fully elected one. Most important, he said, is that the board encompasses members from all across the county and with a variety of political leanings.
"We need to make sure we have all perspectives on the board," he said.
Amalie Brandenburg, Schuh's education liaison, told delegation members that the county executive favors a system of five elected representatives — one from each of the county's legislative districts — as well as three county executive-appointed members and one student representative.
Councilman Chris Trumbauer, D-Annapolis, said he would like for the council to have a say in appointments, as well, although he didn't go so far as to recommend the council select its own appointee.
"For me to consider the process of the seven of us putting forth one name makes my head hurt, and I think that would not be the most productive process," he said, but "speaking for myself ... we'd like to have some role in the conversation."
School board vice president Julie Hummer said the board has not taken an official position on whether the selection process should change.
But she said board members should strive to consider the entire county's interests, and not just those of one community: "An effective board member understands that although they live in and represent a certain part of the county, our mission is to work together for all students, not just those from our individual community."
Sen. Bryan Simonaire, a Pasadena Republican who has been a longtime supporter of an elected school board, said he often hears from constituents who want more power over their school board members.
"They just don't feel there's any accountability to the people," he said.
Simonaire said he wanted to create a "direct link" between voters and the school board, while trying to "get rid of partisanship" as much as possible.
House Minority Leader Nic Kipke, R-Pasadena, said the presence of some degree of politics in school board business is inevitable.
"This is why I prefer to allow the citizens of our county to make that selection through direct elections like the vast majority of boards in Maryland and around the country," he said in a statement.
Out of Maryland's 24 school districts, 17 are elected, five are hybrid bodies and two — Anne Arundel and Wicomico County — are fully appointed. This November, Wicomico County voters will decide via referendum whether they want to change their school board selection process.
Not everyone was convinced changing to an elected school board would be in the best interest of students and teachers.
Jacob Baumgart, first vice president of the Chesapeake Regional Association of Student Councils, said the student group's position "is one of irritated ambivalence." He noted that many recent school board decisions, including this fiscal year's budget vote and decisions on the hiring of a superintendent, earlier school start times and assessment strategies, have been made without partisan bickering.
"Leaders are supposed to be responsible for the entire community but we find that quite often they're only accountable to their own partisan electorate," he said.
Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce President Bob Burdon said the chamber opposes a change and sees nothing wrong with the current system.
"For two decades, the Chamber of Commerce has advocated that an elected school board only makes sense if the Board of Education is given fiscal and budgetary autonomy along with revenue-raising authority," said Burdon, who also serves on the school board nominating commission but did not speak on its behalf. "Absent that, an elected school board does nothing more than expose our children's education to partisan politics which has been very divisive in the past few years, as we've seen."
This story has been updated to correct the name of the Circuit Court judge who ruled on the lawsuit against removal of Hogan's appointees to the School Board Nominating Commission. Judge William C. Mulford heard the case.