Ulman wants study of school board's lack of diversity

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman plans to appoint an advisory panel to study how to address the lack of diversity on the seven-member, nonpartisan Board of Education.

"We're definitely going to be putting together a group to study this very soon," Ulman said Tuesday, July 26.

Ulman's comments came one day after hearing about the issue at his annual public forum, held at the North Laurel Community Center.

"The citizens in this county deserve to have a board that is representative … including geographically, socioeconomically, culturally and racially," Columbia resident Jacqueline Scott said. Two other speakers raised the same concern.

None of the seven board members are from Columbia or Elkridge, and none are black or Hispanic; one member, Brian Meshkin, is half-Asian.

"I think you bring up a very important issue," Ulman told the three residents at the hearing.

With different ways to form a school board — by election or appointment, at large or by district, or by some combination of those approaches — the struggle is "how to make sure it is as reflective as possible of the county population," he said.

Just last year, Howard became a majority minority school system, meaning for the first time minority students outnumbered white students.

Immediately after the forum, Ulman told reporters he is "leaning heavily" toward setting up an advisory panel, made up of citizens, educators and former school board members, to look at the different models and see what would work best in Howard.

The next day, he told the Howard County Times he definitely will set up the panel, hopefully before the General Assembly's special session this fall. Any changes to the structure of the school board must be approved by the General Assembly.

Columbia Democrat Del. Guy Guzzone, chairman of the Howard County Delegation, said he thinks forming such a task force is "the right thing to do.

"I've gotten a few e-mails on these issues recently," he said. "I think there's a budding interest in this idea."

If any change to the school board structure is merited, Guzzone said, the delegation would discuss the issue and draft a bill. What the change would be and when it would take effect would depend on how the bill is drafted.

A 'bubbling issue'

Howard school board members are elected at large (county-wide) for four-year terms. Four seats are voted on during gubernatorial elections and three during presidential elections.

Ulman said lack of diversity on the board "has really been a bubbling issue" since the November 2010 general election.

Four school board seats were up for grabs in that election. Larry Cohen, the board's only Columbia member at the time, and Patrician Gordon, its only black member besides the student member, decided not to run.

Ellicott City incumbents Frank Aquino and Sandra French were re-elected. The three members who were not up for re-election in 2010 but will be in 2012 are Allen Dyer of Ellicott City, Ellen Giles of Scaggsville and Janet Siddiqui of Clarksville.

Newly elected board members Meshkin and Cindy Vaillancourt are from Fulton and Clarksville, respectively.

Ulman said he is not wedded to any particular solution to the board's lack of diversity.

"All I'm going to be asking this group to be doing is simply evaluate our system, evaluate the other structures and to discuss recommendations," he said.

Election by district questioned

Giles, Siddiqui and Vaillancourt all had different thoughts about Ulman's proposal, but they agreed on one thing: It's a challenge to run a county-wide campaign.

"It's difficult to reach all the communities," Siddiqui said, noting that nonpartisan school board candidates have fewer resources than candidates running as Democrats or Republicans, who can rely on party support.

Though Siddiqui said she welcomes diversity, she said having districts to ensure geographical diversity "would be a disservice to the county.

"If you start different representation for different groups, while it may benefit that certain area, it may become less equitable throughout the county in terms of trying to get resources equally distributed," she said.

Giles agreed, noting a task force she was a part of in 2000 found that elections by district would be too polarizing but suggested assigning each board member a cluster of schools to monitor, a recommendation that was adopted.

"It really is about a school system and not about different districts competing with one another," Giles said.

With elections every two years, Giles added, "the make-up of the board changes on a pretty regular basis."

She also noted the diversity of the school system's staff — including Superintendent Sydney Cousin and Deputy Superintendent Mamie Perkins, both of whom are black.

Vaillancourt also said she is not sure districts will solve the diversity problem, but she's open to the idea. However, she noted "the last couple of years the politicalization of the school board has been so gross" and having "districts that you have to cater to would run the risk of making it more politicized."

A champion of "open and free elections," Vaillancourt said the key to having a diverse board is "people of diverse backgrounds running a successful campaign. … They have to have something that appeals to voters."

Del. Gail Bates, a West Friendship Republican who said she's "not big on quotas," agreed.

"It's an elected position," she said. "Anybody can run, and certainly if there's a desire to have diversity, let people of diversity run."

Bates said she would be open to school board members being elected by district, but she would need to hear more about the pros and cons of that system.

Mix of elected, appointed?

Columbia Democrat Del. Frank Turner said years ago he proposed electing school board members by districts because it would foster diversity and is easier than running county-wide.

Turner suggested having five members elected at large and two appointed by the county executive.

"That way you know you have at least one person of diversity on there at all times," Turner said. "I don't think the current method is the most effective method to make sure there is diversity."

Lack of diversity, Turner added, "is not only an issue with the school board. It's a problem with people on commissions. It's a problem with people on the Columbia Association. It's a problem that's certainly getting larger."

That lack of diversity is what spurred the recent formation of the county's first black Democratic club, the Thurgood Marshall Democratic Club, which was formally launched Sunday, July 24.

Club founder Ethel Hill said Ulman's plan to form a panel to study the issue is "an excellent idea. It's time (for it) to be done."

Hill said the school board has only had two black members since it shifted from being an appointed to an elected board in 1974.

In surrounding counties, the systems used to name school board members vary greatly.

In 2009, the General Assembly changed the makeup of the Harford County Board of Education from seven appointed members to a combination of three appointed members and six elected members.

Baltimore County has an all-appointed school board. However, a 12-member task force comprised of state lawmakers, Baltimore County residents and former politicians, has been studying the need to restructure the board, looking at options of electing members or having a combination of elected and appointed members.

Montgomery County elects its seven school board members, five by district and two at large. Prince George's County's nine members are elected by district. Carroll County's five members are elected at large.

Anne Arundel County's eight board members are appointed, five by district and three at large, but they have to be reaffirmed through a retention vote during the election following their appointment.

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