January 14, 2013

PROPOSED LEGISLATION to change the way members of the Montgomery County school board are elected might make it easier for candidates to campaign for office. But it wouldn’t result in better government. In fact, we think the change away from a system requiring the countywide election of board members would result in a cramped parochialism that would ill-serve the county and its students.

Montgomery’s school board is composed of seven members who all are elected countywide, including the five members who represent geographic districts. A bill sponsored by Del. Charles E. Barkley (D-Montgomery) would add two at-large members to the body, which also includes a student member, and would mandate the election of board members who represent districts only by voters in those geographical areas. Mr. Barkley told The Post’s Lynh Bui it’s “daunting” to run countywide; he said his changes could increase diversity on the board. Another bill sponsored by Mr. Barkley would increase annual salaries of the board by $6,500.

In priorities for Montgomery schools, more school board members making more money has got to be way low on the list. If changes are to be contemplated for school governance, they should be about making the board, which is responsible for so much of the county’s spending, more accountable to the public — perhaps by giving it the responsibility of raising revenue as well.

The current system of members who represent districts where they live but compete in countywide elections has resulted in board members who take a broad view of student needs, as opposed to looking out just for the interests of their district. Consider, for example, the experience of board member Patricia O’Neill, who represents the Bethesda area. When then-Superintendent Jerry Weastattempted to steer resources to low-income students in struggling schools, Ms. O’Neill faced pressure from her district to instead use the money to cut class sizes in high schools. She told us that being elected countywide helped give her “the courage to do the right thing and not necessarily the most politically expedient thing.”

Maryland lawmakers should reject this misguided proposal.

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