Howard school board chair says changing its makeup will hamper superintendent search

Howard County school board chair Janet Siddiqui told the county delegation Tuesday night that a proposed bill to change the makeup of the board would jeopardize the search for a superintendent and hamper the progress of the state's only school system to make academic yearly progress this year.

Siddiqui testified during the public hearing on behalf of a school board that could see its current makeup of seven at-large, elected members changed by a bill sponsored by Del. Frank Turner. The bill would call for five members elected by district and two to be appointed by the county executive.

The hybrid school board model was voted on by a school board study commission created in August by County Executive Ken Ulman, who said he sought to address concerns by some county citizens that the board needed more racial and geographic diversity.

If passed during a special session this month, the legislation would take effect before the Jan. 11 primary filing deadline.

The board, which has steadily voiced opposition to the bill, has begun its search for a superintendent to replace Sydney Cousin, who has said he will retire next year. Siddiqui pointed to the school system's progress under its current board, namely its AYP achievement and high graduation rates.

"The board is very concerned about how potential candidates will view the recommendations of the commission and its proposed legislation," said Siddiqui. "We ask you to consider what message are you sending to potential candidates and how it may impact their decision to seek the superintendency in Howard County.

"The board's decision on who will serve as our next superintendent is likely the most far-reaching decision we will make during the next year," Siddiqui added. "It is critical for us to demonstrate the strength of our excellent school system to recruit the very best candidates to choose from. This bill only weakens our position."

Siddiqui's testimony was one of many from county citizens who filled more than three sign-up sheets to voice their opinion on the matter; some were still standing in line to sign the sheets when the meeting began.

Some argued that the bill would offer more diversity on the board while others argued that it would give the county executive too much authority over it.

"I am against this bill for all kinds of reasons, but the bottom line is that I believe it will give the county executive too much power, will disenfranchise voters and be a step back from the diversity that has already been achieved in Howard County," said Julian Levy, of Columbia.

"To me, the process that produced this bill represents political laundering," Levy added. "The county executive appointed a hand-picked, independent commission that was really more stacked than independent. It returned a recommendation that was exactly what the executive ordered in the first place."

Said Sherman Howell of Columbia, who supports the bill, "The areas with the poorest-performing schools are areas where we don't have any minority representation [on the board]. The progress that we hear people talk about in terms of improvement of achievement is on a snail's pace in terms of the 40 years that we've been dealing with the situation. Someone says that in 10 years things will change, and that will be 50 years. And it's costing black families a whole host of frustrations."

The delegation is going to discuss the bill during a work session and then decide whether to bring it up during the coming special session of the General Assembly.

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