Columbia Democrat Del. Frank Turner announced Wednesday, Oct. 12 that he will withdraw his bill that would have changed the school board to a hybrid of appointed and elected members.
"We had our debate, and I think we elevated the discussion," Turner said less than 24 hours after opponents monopolized a public hearing on the bill. "I think sometimes you can accomplish as much through a debate as you can through legislative action."
Turner's bill, which suggested five members be elected by County Council district and two be appointed by the county executive, was opposed by all of the current school board members, who favored retaining the all-elected, county-wide structure.
"We're pleased, and we feel he made the right decision, based on public testimony last night," said board chairwoman Janet Siddiqui. "The board, after going through the whole process, is ready and willing to continue discussion of diversity by reaching out into the community."
County Executive Ken Ulman started the debate by forming a nine-member citizens commission in August to address the lack of racial and geographic diversity on the school board. Brian Meshkin, an Asian American, is the only minority board member. No board members are from Columbia or Elkridge.
Turner's bill had followed the commission's recommendation to move to a hybrid board.
Ken Ulman stood by his position Wednesday that a change would have improved diversity on the school board.
"I'm convinced that the recommendations by the commission that we put forward and Del. Turner's bill would improve representation on the Howard County Board of Education," he said. "I'm really glad we went through this process. I think it's an important subject for this community on which to have a conversation.
"Clearly folks came out and let their voices be heard on opposition to change at this point," Ulman added. "That's what democracy is all about."
Turner had planned to submit the bill to the General Assembly for approval in the special session next week. The Howard County Delegation had planned on voting on the bill before sending it out. Some members had expressed reservations about the bill, especially the appointment piece.
Turner said it's not unusual in Annapolis to have debates and not pass legislation. But this time, the issue never made it to Annapolis, where the General Assembly will begin a special session Monday, Oct. 17.
"Let it play out and see where it goes," Turner said of the debate the bill caused. "Let's see what happens in the 2012 election and the 2014 election."
Turner's announcement followed a spirited public hearing before the Howard County delegation Tuesday, Oct. 11, where opponents to the bill outnumbered proponents four to one.
Roughly 60 people testified at the hearing, which lasted more than four hours and ended 20 minutes shy of midnight.
Debate at the hearing, Turner said, addressed several important issues, including the achievement gap, economic disparity, geographic representation and candidate recruitment.
"I think people understand the issue better and are more sensitive to the issue," Turner said. "We'll see where it goes from here."
One of the things Turner said he hopes the debate will do is encourage more candidates, especially minorities, to run for the school board.
"Before we had this debate, I talked to people and they were rather reluctant about running for school board," he said. "As (candidates) run at-large, I hope that people will, through the voting process, consider all candidates and make sure that we have some diversity on the school board."
Ulman said he hopes that the debate encourages those who came out to weigh in on the issue to stay involved, especially throughout the upcoming school board election and superintendent search.
As far as his plans to continue to encourage more diversity on the board, Ulman said: "We have no specific actions (planned) other than to continue to have the dialogue."
No candidates have filed to run for school board in the 2012 election, but the three current members whose terms will be up in 2012 — Allen Dyer, of Ellicott City, Ellen Giles, of Scaggsville, and Janet Siddiqui, of Clarksville — have all expressed interest in running for re-election. The filing deadline is Jan. 11.
Board member Frank Aquino, of Ellicott City, said he's pleased Turner and others responsible for pursuing the legislation have listened to the community.
"The underlying issues are important to the community, and it was a worthwhile exercise to get these issues out on the table and secure community input and opinions on how we can help ensure that all citizens feel adequately represented on the board," he said. "This is, to an extent, a wake-up call that certain segments of the community feel they're not being adequately represented, and perhaps there's another way to look at this to address this issue. It's just not this legislation at this time."
Opposition rampant at hearing
At the hearing Tuesday night, the majority of opponents took issue with the part of the legislation that said two of the seven school board members should be appointed by the county executive. Some of the many words/phrases opponents used to describe the appointment piece included: "vile," "ill-conceived," "Un-American," "anti-democratic," "artificially enforced diversity," "power grabbing," and "step backward."
Politicians pushing for appointments, Columbia resident Ken Stevens noted, says " that we voters of Howard County are too ignorant and too bigoted to know what's best for us and our school board."
Meshkin, of Fulton, said at the hearing that he planned to lead a referendum petition if the General Assembly passes legislation that would make any of the seven Board of Education seats subject to appointment. He said he would even appeal such a decision in court to prevent it from being implemented before voters get the opportunity to weigh in on the issue.
"Anything I can do to stand up and prevent that from happening … then I'm going to do it," Meshkin said.
On Wednesday, Meshkin was happy to hear that Turner decided to withdraw his bill.
"Obviously, I'm very pleased that the will of the people won," he said. "It was very clear that many groups — the PTA Council, the League of Women Voters, HCEA (teachers' union), were unified in their opposition. People across the aisle were unified in this."
The part of the legislation that calls for the other five school board members to be elected by County Council districts received little mention throughout opposition testimony, but it was widely supported by proponents.
"Districts lead to two significant things," Columbia resident Jackie Scott said. "One is access and the other is accountability."
Many supporters pointed to the fact that most of the county's poorest performing schools (according to assessment data) are the schools that have no geographic representation, based on where board members live. Other supporters touted the need for more racial and ethnic diversity on the board.
Overall, many opponents said the community had little time to digest and understand the implications of the bill. And even three of the commission members — Howard County Education Association President Paul Lemle, PTA Council President Chaun Hightower and Conexiones President Feli Sola-Carter — issued a dissenting report. Both the majority and minority commission reports, along with accompanying data, can be found on the county's website.
Staff writer Sara Toth contributed to this report.