Elected school board has never voted no

Lit­tle par­tic­i­pa­tion in first decade, Whig anal­y­sis finds

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - By JES­SICA IANNETTA

jian­netta@ce­cil­whig.com

— Ten years ago this month, the first elected school board mem­bers took of­fice. Since that day, not a sin­gle

CE­CIL COUNTY

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.

CE­CIL WHIG PHOTO BY JES­SICA IANNETTA

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.

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