Baltimore County Council supports partially elected school board

In an attempt to push for a more accountable school board, a majority of Baltimore County Council members say they would support a move from a fully appointed school board to a partially elected one.

While the council has no direct say over whether the change will be made, its backing of the measure that will come before the Maryland General Assembly in the next session could help sway legislators.

The letter was written to Sen. Kathy Klausmeier and Del. Steve Lafferty, who head a legislative task force looking into whether the board structure should change, and was signed by council members Vicki Almond, Todd Huff, David Marks and Cathy Bevins.

"While we believe the school system is fundamentally strong, there are disturbing issues that have eroded the trust that must exist between parents and those who lead our public schools," the letter said.

In the past year, teachers and parents have expressed concern about a number of issues, including changes in a policy that gives the public less access to the use of school buildings, concern about ethics and questions about how the school system is spending taxpayer money.

"People are frustrated and upset because they are not being heard at all," Almond said in an interview. "I personally think it is time for a complete overhaul."

In addition, the county executive and council members had asked Superintendent Joe A. Hairston during the budget process to restore teaching positions that had been cut, but he refused.

During task force hearings this summer, members of the public have testified that they believe the school board is a rubber stamp for Hairston and that they want a school board that is more accessible and responsive to public and parent concerns. Currently, the members of the board are all appointed by the governor, with some input from the county executive, a process that some have said shields the members from public pressure.

The council members said they support a hybrid board, one that would have seven members elected from each of the County Council districts in nonpartisan elections, and four members selected by the county executive and confirmed by the County Council.

That new board, the letter said, would guarantee that the majority of the board is accountable to the voters. The elected members would need to garner support from a broad political spectrum. In addition, it would "strengthen the relationship that should naturally exist between the board of education and the elected leadership of the county."

Almond said she believes elected board members would work more closely with their council members to address issues in their area. In particular, she would like to see more long-term planning to deal with school facilities issues.

The letter does give credit to the new school board president, Larry Schmidt, who has called for more accountability and openness on the part of the school system.

"I do want to commend Larry Schmidt. I do think he recognizes there are problems and he is trying to address them forcefully," Marks said, but he added that "the only way to have long-lasting reform is to change the selection process."

But a move to an elected school board still does not have the support of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who believes that the board might not be as diverse as it is today, according to Donald Mohler, Kamenetz's chief of staff.

"I think what we are presenting is a good compromise. There will still be an opportunity for the county executive to nominate members who would represent the county's diversity," Marks said.

Mohler said Kamenetz is "eager to see what the task force comes up with" and will consider the hybrid option, but he said there may be other ways to increase accountability without moving to an elected board.