Who should sit on our school boards?

Cit­i­zens, law­mak­ers ask whether ap­pointed, elected or hy­brid panels do best

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Ali­son Kneze­vich

When tem­per­a­tures in the class­rooms of Ridgely Mid­dle School reached the high 90s, Julie Su­gar and other par­ents in­vited Bal­ti­more County school board mem­bers to check out the prob­lem. The board mem­bers didn’t come — but lo­cal law­mak­ers did.

“That’s when we re­al­ized that our school board was not re­spon­sive or ac­count­able to the pub­lic,” said Su­gar, who once headed the mid­dle school’s PTA and is now pres­i­dent of the Loch Raven High School PTA. “And it made us re­al­ize that they did not have to be re­spon­sive or ac­count­able to the pub­lic be­cause the pub­lic didn’t put them on the school board.”

Frus­tra­tions with the board “reached a tip­ping point,” and Su­gar now is among par­ents and state law­mak­ers who are push­ing to add elected mem­bers to the county’s all-ap­pointed school board. Res­i­dents in other lo­cal­i­ties in the re­gion also have pushed to change the se­lec­tion of school boards — which ap­prove bud­gets and craft ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy — but they’ve found no easy an­swer.

In Bal­ti­more County, mem­bers of a panel set up to ex­am­ine the school board makeup there re­cently told res­i­dents that they could not come up with an an­swer. In Howard County, a hear­ing on a pro­posed change lasted for hours, a day be­fore the plan was with­drawn. And in Bal­ti­more City, a state del­e­gate is propos­ing to strip the school board of gov­ern­ing power, sug­gest­ing that the sys­tem might be bet­ter off if it was con­trolled by the mayor like other city agen­cies.

De­spite de­bates about ac­count­abil­ity, lo­cal pol­i­tics, and mi­nor­ity rep­re­sen­ta­tion, ex­perts say there’s no data show­ing that stu­dents fare bet­ter un­der elected or ap­pointed sys­tems.

“My take on this is that what’s clear is that there’s no per­fect sys­tem,” said Howard County Ex­ec­u­tive Ken Ul­man, who in Au­gust cre­ated a school board study com­mis­sion and had pushed to add ap­pointed mem­bers.

Of the state’s 24 school boards, 18 are fully elected, ac­cord­ing to the Mary­land As­so­ci­a­tion of Boards of Ed­u­ca­tion. Two coun­ties — Caro­line and Har­ford — have de­cided to shift to “hy­brid” mod­els with a com­bi­na­tion of elected and ap­pointed mem­bers. Four boards are fully ap­pointed.

In Wi­comico County, where the board is ap­pointed, County Coun­cil mem­bers re­cently voted to put a non-bind­ing re­fer- method of se­lec­tion,” he said.” You can have an ap­pointed board or an elected board be se­cre­tive and not be re­spon­sive to the pub­lic. “

For Ul­man, the is­sue is also tied to lo­cal fi­nances.

“Sixty-two per­cent of my op­er­at­ing bud­get goes to the Board of Ed­u­ca­tion,” Ul­man said. “I think peo­ple would say, ‘Gee, you ought to have an ap­point­ment or two when 62 per­cent of your bud­get goes to some­thing that es­sen­tially you have no con­trol over what­so­ever or very lit­tle in­flu­ence.’ ”

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