Howard residents still seek to address concerns about school board

Howard CountyKen UlmanPTAMergers, Acquisitions and Takeovers

Even as the Howard County School Board Study Commission decided to recommend a change in selecting the board's members, panel member Paul Lemle argued that more time was needed to explore options and gauge community responses.

The commission's recommendation, which was ultimately crafted into a bill by Del. Frank Turner, was hotly debated for four hours Tuesday night at an often-emotional public hearing. Turner withdrew the bill the next day.

But concerns about school board representation, and the tensions the issue exposed during the commission proceedings and public hearing, persist. Lemle, president of the Howard County Education Association, is among those who hope the county continues to explore the issue and debate possible alternatives if it deems such action necessary.

"Anything that leads to greater public involvement in the school system is a good thing," said Lemle. "If this leads to communities recruiting and supporting better candidates for the school board, it's a good thing. If this leads to voters taking a greater interest in the school board — because only about 50 percent of Howard County's voters voted for their school board members in the last election — that's a good thing."

The commission was created by County Executive Ken Ulman, who wanted to address residents' concerns about a lack of racial and geographic diversity on the seven-member, elected-at-large board. The commission recommended changing the makeup to five members elected by district and two appointed by the county executive. Turner subsequently proposed a bill with that recommendation.

Lemle said the county should consider an alternative model that addresses residents' concerns about diversity on the board without restricting voting rights.

And he offered a public apology to the commission for comments he made while testifying at the public hearing, in which he said, "I am a teacher and I am against the kind of intellectual laziness that went into this thing, into this commission."

"I wasn't entirely fair to characterize the commission negatively, but I was blunt," said Lemle. "I should have argued for [an alternative] more articulately, and I didn't. The commission was frustrating for me because I didn't feel like it took the time to really understand the different models. One thing it really never talked about was whether the voting public would accept this recommendation."

Howard County boasts being the only school system in the state to meet federally mandated goals known as adequate yearly progress and achieving graduation rates well above the state average. But some in the county, including Leslie Kornreich of Hanover, who supported a school board elected by district, said that the school board also needs to focus more on the system's challenges.

"I was very disappointed to see how many people in their testimony — particularly the sitting board members — keep saying what a highly ranked and incredibly wonderful school system we have," said Kornreich, who ran unsuccessfully for the school board last year. "That it's so fantastic and it's so almost perfect that we don't need to make any changes at all.

"We have a lot of successful students, but let's acknowledge that we have a lot that are not successful, that need help, and they're not getting it. How do we fix that? It would be great to see this stay an issue that the public is aware of and acknowledge that we're not perfect and have lots of room to improve."

Turner said he withdrew the bill because of the concerns he heard about the measure. Many residents said they feared that adding appointed members would dilute their voting power, while others argued that a change could help reflect the geographical and racial makeup of the school system.

"I think it was good we had the debate," said Turner, a Democrat. "I think that a lot of people are going to be more sensitive. I think we need to have this discussion so that … we can move forward and continue to be the No. 1 school system."

Ulman said he hopes that residents who voiced concerns about the school board's makeup will remain involved.

"I believe that the recommendations and the bill would have improved representation on the school board and improved our school system, which is always my goal, but I appreciate everyone coming out and having their voices heard on this subject," he said.

"I hope that people who came out and got involved on this issue will stay involved and help our school system improve."

Chaun Hightower, president of the PTA Council of Howard County, said the commission and proposed legislation "forced our community to focus its attention on the board of education. … It is my hope that our recent discussions will result in more parental and community participation with the board of education, and I am also hoping that individuals will now begin to seriously consider running for open board positions when they become available."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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