State lawmakers propose new rules for Baltimore County school board after disputed leadership vote

Maryland lawmakers are considering a bill that would affect how Baltimore County's school board elects its leaders. Board Chairwoman Kathleen Causey said the bill is unnecessary.
Maryland lawmakers are considering a bill that would affect how Baltimore County's school board elects its leaders. Board Chairwoman Kathleen Causey said the bill is unnecessary.(Ulysses Muñoz, Baltimore Sun)

Maryland state lawmakers have stepped into a dispute over selecting the chairperson of Baltimore County’s school board, drawing criticism from board members.

The lawmakers say they’re trying to fix a problem, while some board members allege that the lawmakers are inappropriately meddling in school board business.


The dispute stems from the school board’s attempt to elect a new chairperson and vice chairperson in December.

Neither candidate for the chairmanship — incumbent chairwoman Kathleen Causey or challenger Cheryl E. Pasteur — was able to get the required seven votes to win. Pasteur had six votes and Causey had five.

The vote was complicated by the fact that there are normally 12 voting members of the school board, but one seat has been vacant since last October’s death of board member Roger Hayden. Pasteur has said she believes Hayden would have voted for her, getting her to the required seven votes.

Several state lawmakers have proposed a bill that would say that the school board’s chairman and vice chairman would be selected by a majority of the board members serving at that time. If that rule had been in place when the Baltimore County board voted in December, Pasteur would have had six of 11 votes, representing a majority.

Del. Eric Ebersole said the vote over the chairmanship highlighted a problem that hadn’t been anticipated.

“I think it clarifies the democratic method of picking,” said Ebersole, a Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill. “I would think the members of the board would want to elect their chair by a democratic process.”

Sen. Charles Sydnor, the other lead sponsor of the bill, said it’s unusual that a person who wins the most votes wouldn’t get a position.


“I don’t think anybody was aware this was a possibility. It showed a hole in this process,” said Sydnor, a Democrat.

Causey said the bill is unnecessary because the law is clear: Absent a vote to change the leadership, the status quo remains. The state school board issued an advisory opinion Wednesday affirming the county board’s interpretation of the law.

She said no lawmakers reached out to her before introducing the bill.

“I am concerned about legislation that affects the board that has not been discussed with me as the board chair or the board’s legislative and government relations committee,” Causey said.

If the bill is approved by lawmakers and the governor, the new law would take effect immediately. Causey said the school board’s attorney has advised them the board could hold another leadership vote at any time.

School board chairs and vice chairs are largely ceremonial roles. A board chair has only one vote and can set the agenda for the meetings, but that agenda is voted on by the entire board.


Some board members allege the lawmakers are trying to engineer a different outcome for the chairmanship vote.

“This is about the General Assembly using their authority to rewrite our parliamentary rules to change outcomes,” said board member Lily Rowe.

Rowe added that she believes the attempt to pass the bill represents an effort to undermine the school board’s autonomy.

Julie Henn, the board’s vice chairwoman, drew more than 100 comments on Facebook for her post opposing the bill.

“So when you don’t like the legal outcome of an election, what do you do?” she wrote. “Clearly, you try to change the law.”

Ebersole and Sydnor both said they aren’t trying to get involved in who wins the school board chairmanship.

They noted that school boards fall under state law, and so changes to any local board’s procedures must go through the General Assembly.

“It’s nothing personal about anybody,” Sydnor said. “It’s trying to fix an issue that’s come up.”

Public hearings on the bill are scheduled Friday morning before the Baltimore County House delegation and March 10 before the House of Delegates Ways and Means Committee.

Meanwhile, the issue of the vacancy on the school board could be resolved soon. The panel reviewing applicants for the vacancy said they plan to send nominations to Gov. Larry Hogan by mid-March.