Hybrid school board bill advances in legislature
Wednesday, 19 March 2014 11:36

Measure passes House, faces vote in Senate

by Nicole Rodman

Proponents of an elected school board in Baltimore County are getting closer to making their vision a reality.
    On Monday afternoon, the House of Delegates unanimously passed a bill that would create a partially-elected school board in Baltimore County.
    Last Thursday, the county’s House and Senate delegations paved the way for Monday’s passage, voting unanimously to approve the measure.
    The Senate’s version of the bill has already been approved by committee and faces a vote on the floor.
    Before the measure heads to the governor for his signature, either the House or Senate will have to approve the other chamber’s version of the bill.
    Similar bills have failed seven times before. Last year, the county’s Senate delegation failed to pass a hybrid school board bill by one vote.
    Under the current law, all 12 members of the Baltimore County school board are appointed by the governor.
    The governor appoints school board members based in part on recommendations from the Baltimore County executive.
  

Seven of the members represent the seven councilmanic districts, while four of the members represent the county at large.
    The remaining member is a high school junior or senior appointed to represent student interests on the board.
    Currently, the adult board members serve five-year terms while the student member serves for one year.
    Under the new hybrid school board bill, the seven board members representing county districts would be elected. The four at-large board members, as well as the student member, would continue to be appointed.
    Terms for the adult board members would be four years. The student member would continue to serve a one-year term.
    Both elected and appointed board members would be limited to serving three consecutive terms. Once the term limit is reached, a member would have to wait four years before being eligible to serve again.
    Candidates for school board seats would be nonpartisan.
    Neither current Baltimore County Public Schools employees nor officials who hold elected or appointed political offices or positions within the local, state or federal government would be eligible to sit on the board.
    Of the 24 Maryland counties and Baltimore City, 17 have fully-elected school boards, while three have partially-elected hybrid school boards.
    Just four jurisdictions, including Baltimore County, have fully-appointed school boards.
    The bill passed by the House also includes an amendment that would create a 17-member nominating commission.
    The purpose of the commission would be to recommend nominees to the governor for appointment to the school board.
    The commission would step in in the event of any vacancy, whether due to a lack of filed candidates or a resignation.
    If the hybrid school board bill passes, the first Baltimore County school board elections would be held in 2018.
    According to county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler, while County Executive Kevin Kamenetz generally does not favor the hybrid school board bill, he  does agree with a 2018 starting date.
    “Should the county adopt a hybrid school board, the county executive believes the school board election should take place during a county election cycle when citizens are focused on county issues, as opposed to a presidential election cycle when the focus is on national issues,” Kobler explained.
    “It would also save taxpayer money because there would be an election ballot savings if the election were to take place in a non-presidential cycle,” she added.
    While Del. John Ol-szewski Jr. — who supports the bill, and who served on the board as the student member in 1999-2000 — understands the benefits of waiting until 2018, he would have preferred to hold elections sooner.
    “Had we been able to do it in 2014, that would have been ideal,” he said, adding, “I’m just pleased that we’re moving forward.”
    A number of stakeholders, including many county parents, favor an elected school board as a means of increasing accountability for board members.
    Calls for an elected school board in Baltimore County have increased in recent years amid controversial decisions such as the closure of Eastwood Elementary Magnet School last year.
    However, some observers have raised concerns that an elected school board would lack diversity.
    Others have argued that  elected school board members would be too political or lack the qualifications of appointed members.
    Addressing these concerns, Del. Olszewski noted, “To the extent that is true, I think that’s [mitigated] by having the appointed members.”
    “As a constituent, I would rather have someone more directly accountable to me,” he added.
    Sen. Norman Stone also supports the hybrid school board bill.
    His stance this session marks a change from last year, when he voted against the bill on the grounds that an elected school board would be “too political.”
    “I’m going to support it,” Stone said of this year’s bill, noting, “There is nothing disparaging of the current school board, because I think they’ve done a good job.
    “I think it makes [the school board] more diverse,” he said.
    For his part, county executive Kevin Kamenetz has repeatedly spoken out against creating an elected school board.
    “The county executive has been consistent for 20 years in his belief that an appointed school board is best for children ­— a view shared by every former Baltimore County executive,” county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler told The Eagle last week. “He also recognizes that there are well-meaning people on both sides of this issue.”
    While the measure still faces further votes before heading to the governor’s desk,  Del. Olszewski is optimistic that the bill will pass.
    He noted, “I’d be surprised if this bill doesn’t actually get finalized this year.”