Elected school board has never voted no
Little participation in first decade, Whig analysis finds
— Ten years ago this month, the first elected school board members took office. Since that day, not a single
board member has voted against a proposal from Cecil County Public Schools administration.
That streak of unanimous votes has now lasted for 10 years, seven months and one day. Three superintendents and 11 different board members have come and gone. Two hundred and sixty meetings have been held. The economy has gone from boom to bust to somewhere in between. The curriculum has changed, stan- dardized tests have changed, whole educational philosophies have been discarded and replaced. But still the streak persists. “We have been accused of rubber stamping,” school board president Dawn Branch recently told the Whig. “We’ve thought about it a lot because we know it isn’t true but it does appear that way. But we’re not
going to go against something just to change perception if it’s not the right thing to do.”
No one’s quite sure why the streak has lasted this long, and many don’t think it’s a bad thing. Past and present school board members say that the elected school board’s work can’t and shouldn’t be reduced to just a voting record, and that the public doesn’t see much of the back and forth that goes on outside of meetings. They argue that electing members has opened up the process beyond the usual stakeholder groups and strengthened the board’s ties with the community.
While the process may be more open though, fewer people have been willing to participate: only eight of the 15 school board races held over the last decade have been contested.
Although the elected board hasn’t been perfect, all the board members interviewed by the Whig say the move away from an appointed board makes just as much sense today as it did when voters overwhelming approved it in 2004.
“This is all about local decisions for our county,” said Donna Zane, the first person to serve two terms on the elected board. “It never really made sense to me why the governor would have the ability (to appoint members). It takes it out of the hands of the average citizens. I know the governor doesn’t have a clue who I am so how would you ever make that connection?”
The streak The streak began on April 3, 2006.
Bill Herold, then the board president, cast that lone dissenting vote against a contract to construct kindergarten rooms at six elementary schools, saying the project was already over budget.
That was one of four no votes Herold would cast from 20042006, the oldest board meetings minutes available online, and one of only eight total no votes cast during that time period. There was never enough dissent to defeat a motion, and most of the no votes cast were about matters related to school construction.
Herold, a self-described fiscal conservative, maintains that it’s the lack of conservative voices and of board members with business backgrounds like himself that has led to the current streak.
“There was an absolute thought that board members just rubber stamp everything, historically,” Herold said. “That’s the way it always was.”
But Stewart Wilson, who served from 2004-2006, was surprised by the lack of dissent, recalling quite a few ‘no’ votes during his time on the appointed board.
“We had a couple — myself included — board members who if we thought something wasn’t right, were willing to vote no,” he said. “That wasn’t being disrespectful, that was just disagreeing.”
But others who’ve served on the board say that while it may look like rubber stamping, certain aspects of the school board make it different from other elected bodies and leave less room for disagreement.
Branch, the current board president, notes that board members have usually read all the material on a particular vote in advance of the meeting and, in many cases, have already corresponded with administrators about their concerns.
In addition, many of the board’s votes revolve around human resource matters and other items that can only be discussed in closed session meetings that the public doesn’t see. Other votes include policies that are handed down by the state or school construction bids, which must adhere to a strict process that leaves little room for controversy, she said.
In the end, Branch said it comes down to trust; both between school officials and the board and among the board members themselves, and she’s grateful the board doesn’t experience the kind of animosity found in other counties.
“The public’s just not always aware of everything that’s going on,” Branch said. “We have our own minds and our own votes, and we do what we think is best, it just happens to agree with the superintendent.”
Former superintendent Carl Roberts, who worked with both an elected and an appointed board, said he didn’t notice much of a difference between the two boards, noting both the elected and appointed board members were always well-prepared.
Regardless of whether they’re elected or appointed, Roberts said it comes down to the character and values of the individual board members.
“The important thing about serving on the school board is that you have a quality individual who has the best interests of students and the future of our county at heart,” he said. “Whether they’re elected or appointed, you want a highquality person.”
‘A turning point’ When Cecil County residents went to the polls in November 2004 to consider whether the school board should be appointed or elected, the result was overwhelming: more than 87 percent supported an elected board.
That result came at a time when many other counties around the state were making the same decision and today, every county except three has at least some elected board members.
Under the appointed board, prospective candidates attended a nominating convention where the teacher’s association, local PTAs and other community members could ask them questions before the governor made the final appointment. But, in reality, many of the appointments had to do with what political party was in the state house.
Herold recalls receiving a phone call shortly after Bob Ehrlich, a Republican, was elected governor in 2002. Herold had raised a lot of money for Ehrlich during the election and Ehrlich wanted to reciprocate by offering him the open school board seat.
Although his time on the school board was the result of a political appointment, Herold said he was always in favor of an elected board.
“It takes the politics out of it,” he said. “I mean, why did I get appointed? It wasn’t because I had a background in education or anything.”
Lisa Koch, who served 12 years as an appointed member, recalls being recruited by a friend on the Democratic Central Committee after a few years of being active at the PTA level.
But while the nominating conventions did allow some groups to question the candidates, switching to an elected board opened up the process even more and gave everyone a say in who represented them on the school board, Koch said.
“It was a turning point for politics in Cecil County,” she said. “The people were asking for more transparency because truly not everyone had a say.”
‘A big leap’ But while the elected school board hasn’t cast any no votes, it’s equally true that there haven’t been many people willing to sit on the board in the first place.
Only eight of the 15 school board general elections have been contested and prior to this year, the last contested election was in 2010. Lauren Camphausen will finish up her two terms on the school board this month never having run in a contested election.
While Camphausen said she thinks electing members creates stronger ties between the board and the community, she also understands that running for public office can be daunting.
“The folks that are most interested in our schools and our system aren’t politicians and I think that they get very intimidated by the fact that it is officially an elected process,” Camphausen said. “As soon as folks show interest and you say to them, you have to go to the board of elections and get this huge stack of paperwork to create your campaign — that’s overwhelming and not what they’re interested in.”
In many ways the lack of interest isn’t surprising given that school board members may have the county’s most thankless political job. They work long hours but, unlike the county council or the county executive, receive no salary. The office has also never become a political stepping stone to anything, something most board members say is a good thing but which may also lessen its appeal.
Furthermore, there’s also no obvious pathway for people interested in running for school board, Superintendent D’Ette Devine said. While county council or county executive candidates can get some experience by first serving on a town board, no such option exists in the education world, she said.
That’s one reason CCPS has recently been working toward creating a more formalized parent advisory committee, which would give people a chance to get interested in someday running for school board, Devine said.
“Right now, it’s a big leap from a PTO seat to the board president,” she said.
Ten years ago this month, the first elected school board members took office. Since that time, no member has voted against an administration’s proposal.