Baltimore County residents and lawmakers who want to add elected members to the county school board are gearing up for a familiar push as the legislative session nears, and they say they are better organized this time around.
With state lawmakers set to meet in January, supporters of changing the all-appointed school board say they're stepping up outreach efforts to legislators and county residents. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who last session lobbied hard against changing the board's structure, has signaled that he may be willing to compromise this time around.
Earlier this year, a bill nearly passed but died during the last minutes of the session.
"The process last [session] brought into focus a lot of people's concerns about the issue," said Del. John Olszewski Jr., a Dundalk Democrat who chairs the county's House delegation. "I think it'd be best to find some solution and maybe once and for all get this issue behind us."
The board is now appointed by the governor based on the county executive's recommendations. Those who want elected members say it would make the board more accountable and responsive. But opponents' concerns include whether changing the board's structure would lessen minority representation or make it harder for board members to make unpopular decisions.
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Pikesville Democrat and longtime advocate of adding elected members to the board, plans to again introduce a bill that would create a "hybrid" school board, a combination of elected and appointed members.
"I intend to put that bill in right at the beginning of the session and hope for the best," said Zirkin, adding that he's working with Del. Steve Lafferty, who plans to introduce the House version. "It's long past time that the citizens of Baltimore County join the rest of the world in having a democratic process in the selection of their school board."
Earlier this year, a coalition called Advocates for Baltimore County Schools formed to organize support for a hybrid board. Also, the League of Women Voters of Baltimore County is taking a more active role in promoting the idea.
"We have been making a concerted effort ... to meet with as many as we possibly can," said Judy Miller, chair of the county league's education committee. "We're really stepping it up."
The league intensely studied the issue and feels it's an "issue of democracy," she said.
The county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People opposes altering the selection process for the board, as it has in the past, said President Tony Fugett.
Fugett said the organization doesn't believe that an elected board would serve children best, and that the people who are most qualified to serve on the board might not be the same as the people who would "run the best campaign." He added that the organization plans to discuss the issue in detail at an upcoming state conference.
According to a letter sent to Zirkin and other lawmakers Friday by Kamenetz's director of government affairs, Yolanda Winkler, Zirkin proposed a compromise in talks with the Kamenetz administration that would involve choosing school board members through a process similar to the way judges are nominated, allowing for the retention or rejection of board members by popular vote.
Zirkin called that assertion "an out and out lie" and said he only discussed the idea of a nominating commission, but did not propose it as an agreement.
"Unfortunately, he's just not a trustworthy partner in government," Zirkin said of the county executive.
In September, Kamenetz wrote to state lawmakers, asking them to avoid discussion of the school board issue, saying it would take focus away from supporting new Superintendent Dallas Dance.
Still, Kamenetz's chief of staff, Don Mohler, said that in recent talks between Zirkin and Kamenetz, "they both are eager to see if they can reach some kind of an agreement."
"They have made substantial progress in trying to reach common ground," Mohler said.
The school board itself has previously opposed changing the panel's structure. Board President Lawrence Schmidt said members haven't yet taken a position this time.
"I would expect that we would be consistent with the position we have taken in the past, but that would be subject to the board taking a look at what [legislation] is filed," Schmidt said.