Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is dropping his opposition to a partially-elected county school board, improving the odds that legislation to create that will pass in this year’s General Assembly session.
The so-called hybrid school board bill has died in previous years, and a big reason for that was Kamenetz’s vigorous opposition. Under the current setup, the governor appoints the 11-member board after receiving recommendations from the county executive. The hybrid bill, sponsored by Senator Jim Brochin, would keep four appointed members, but the other seven would be elected.
Brochin, a Democrat, said a compromise bill would not go into effect until 2018, the year Kamenetz would leave office after a second term. In a statement, Kamenetz’s office said he still prefers an appointed school board, but waiting until 2018 to start a partially elected board is “a move in a positive direction” because it’s not a presidential election year and voters would be concentrating on county issues.
Brochin said he would have preferred the original effective date of 2016, but he’s fine with the compromise. “It’s not perfect, but if it gets the bill out and we ultimately get what we want, and we can have a school board that serves as a check against the power of the superintendent, then I can live with it,” he said.
Meanwhile, a House of Delegates committee is working on another compromise bill.
The school board’s handling of several controversial issues is driving the call for a partially-elected panel. There were so many people at this week’s board meeting that the crowd spilled into the hallway. Several hot button issues were on the table.
Justin Buckingham was there for the debate over which students will go to the new Mays Chapel Elementary School. He’s been frustrated with how the board has handled it. “We felt at several times in this process that it was very difficult to have our voices heard,” Buckingham said. “That there were obstacles.”
Brochin said county residents feel neither the board nor the superintendent is listening to them, and a partially-elected school board would open members’ ears. “Ultimately the school superintendent is going to listen, because half of that board is going to make a decision whether the superintendent gets his contract extended, whether he has a vote of no confidence,” he said. “And they’re going to ask questions and be accountable to the people.”
Anita Rasmussen is the mother of a ninth grader at Hereford High School. She is upset at the school board for not stopping Superintendent Dallas Dance’s plan to put county high schools on similar schedules, which would mean major changes at Hereford. “Parents need a voice and that’s what we feel right now is missing,” Rasmussen said. “Parents and students do not have a voice.”
But do elected school boards make classrooms better? The research shows maybe not. A 2011 report by Advocates for Children and Youth in Maryland recommended focusing on better training for school board members, rather than getting hung up on board structure. County school board member Mike Collins supports having a fully elected school board, but he says what matters is who serves on the panel. “Any school board structure will work if you have dedicated members of the board,” Collins said. “And I know I’m being partial but I really do believe the Baltimore County board works very well as an appointed board right now because the members are very dedicated.”
The legislation in Annapolis remains a moving target as supporters make changes to try to get it passed. One compromise in the works would have the four appointed school board members nominated by a commission, rather than the county executive. But the governor would still make the appointments.