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House Gives Voters Say in School Board

Senate to Consider Momentous Change

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 31, 2005; Page AA03

After two decades of failed efforts, Anne Arundel delegates have taken a momentous step toward changing the way the county's school board members are selected.

Under a bill approved Monday by the full House of Delegates, the governor would still appoint school board members, but the appointees would go on the ballot in the next general election for retention or rejection by voters. The measure now awaits consideration in the Senate.

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Full Report

The legislation is a work of pure compromise and in no way resembles the bill introduced early in the session by Republican Delegates Tony McConkey of Severna Park and John Leopold of Pasadena. But it accomplishes, in a limited way, the goal set by a series of would-be reformers: to give voters a hand in empaneling the school board.

Maryland counties are almost evenly divided between elected and appointed school boards. In Anne Arundel, the governor appoints board members based on the recommendations of a 250-person nominating convention of civic, religious and philanthropic leaders. The governor does not have to appoint the group's first or even second choice and occasionally selects someone completely outside the nomination process.

The new method, approved Friday by a 13-1 vote of the county's state delegates, calls for a 13-member nominating commission to replace the somewhat unwieldy convention. Top candidates would still go to the governor for appointment, but appointees would go on the ballot in the next general election for retention or rejection by voters.

"After two decades of stalemate, this is a significant step to provide accountability in the system by allowing the public to have a say in this process," Leopold said. "We got a compromise. That's what the process is all about."

The full House of Delegates voted 131-1 to approve House Bill 625 -- largely a formality, as the body traditionally yields to the will of the county delegation on local matters. Approval in the Senate is a trickier proposition. Three of the five senators from Anne Arundel would have to support the bill for it to win passage. As of Monday, McConkey was confident he had the support of at least two.

McConkey is the latest in a succession of torchbearers for the cause of school board elections. He entered the 2005 session with hopes of persuading his colleagues to support a simple switch to elections. He could not unite a majority of the 15-member county delegation behind such a bill last year, and he was unable to do so this year.

Instead, he joined forces with Leopold, who brought with him a faction of delegates favoring a different sort of change: preserving an appointed school board but placing appointment power in the hands of the county executive. They drafted a bill that would have offered both options to voters in a 2006 referendum.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat whose opinion carries weight in the delegation, expressed varying degrees of discomfort with the bill over the course of several meetings. Then, on March 18, he presented an amendment that recast the McConkey-Leopold bill.

Busch proposed a nomination process modeled on the way Maryland selects appellate judges.

"My concern," he told colleagues that day, "has always been keeping minority participation on the school board." He said there was simply no way to assure that the electorate would choose minority board members, no matter how the electoral districts were drawn.

The legislation approved last week calls for the governor to appoint five of the 13 members of the new commission that would nominate school board members, one from each Anne Arundel Senate district. The county executive would appoint two members. Six other groups -- teachers and school administrators unions, two county-wide parent groups, the chamber of commerce and the county community college -- would each get one appointment.

The nominating commission would interview school board candidates and submit at least two names to the governor for each opening. The governor would make the appointments and, as now, would have the power to choose someone not selected by the nominating commission.

Every new school board member would go on the ballot in the first general election after his or her appointment for retention or rejection by voters. If retained, the board member could serve out a five-year term without another retention vote. A board member who chose to serve for a second five-year term would go before voters for a second retention vote. The current two-term limit on school board members would remain in place.

Both of the bill's sponsors said they were pleased that it passed, albeit in mutated form, considering how long they and their predecessors had been working toward changing the school board selection process.

"I think this is a very good compromise and a great improvement over what we had before," McConkey said.

But the final product fell short of what McConkey wanted, and it disappointed those in the community who felt it was time to switch to an elected school board.

The vast majority of the nation's school boards are elected. Proponents say that board members are more responsive to their constituents if subject to election. Supporters of appointed boards say appointees are less vulnerable to parochial politics. Maryland moved to appointed school boards in the early 1900s but has drifted back to elections in recent years.

Busch's proposal for the Anne Arundel board "may be some improvement over what we have, but not much, in my view," said Bill D. Burlison (D), a County Council member from Odenton. "These school board members are extremely important people, and they should have accountability to the people, to the citizens."

If the bill became law, it would come into play next year with the term-limit departure of board member Paul G. Rudolph. Rudolph, appointed in 1996, represents Senate District 33, incorporating Crofton, Odenton and Severna Park. The appointment committee would choose Rudolph's replacement, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) would made the appointment, the new member would take office in July and voters would have a chance to retain or reject the new board member in November.

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