Three years after the state abolished an elected, turmoil-ridden Board of Education in Prince George's County, Maryland lawmakers are drafting plans for an electoral system to replace the caretaker school board named by top state and local officials.
Momentum is gathering in the House of Delegates for a proposal to elect a nine-member school board through districts identical to those used to elect Prince George's County Council members. Although the initiative is in an early stage, many officials envision board elections being held in fall 2006.
U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) called the bill premature and said the appointed board should be evaluated over next year.
Under current law, a board appointed in 2002 by the governor and county executive is scheduled to give way next year to an elected board. The law also stipulates countywide election of members. But an emerging debate in Annapolis might alter the shape of the successor board.
Yesterday, the Prince George's House delegation met to consider the nine-district proposal. The bill, sponsored by Del. Rosetta C. Parker (D-Prince George's), could win approval from the county delegation as early as Friday. That would give the bill a strong shot at House passage, but there is no indication how the Senate would act.
At issue is leadership of a 135,000-student system, second-largest in the state, that has long lagged its peers in academic performance.
Many lawmakers who, like Parker, represent portions of the county that are inside the Capital Beltway, chafe at the appointed board, noting that all its members live outside the Beltway.
"People are now saying, 'Listen, we want the opportunity to choose our school board members,' " said Del. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George's), who backs the Parker bill.
Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George's), who had proposed to elect a board through six districts and three at-large seats, said he would side with Parker after his own bill stalled.
School Board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro) could not be reached for comment on the legislation. Schools chief Andre J. Hornsby declined to comment through a spokesman.
Ten of Maryland's 24 local school boards are appointed, according to the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. Among them are the boards in Baltimore (city and county) and Anne Arundel County. Frederick County's board recently moved from appointed to elected. Montgomery County, which has 140,000 students in public schools, elects seven board members countywide, though five of them are required to live in geographic districts.
At least one Prince George's lawmaker voiced skepticism about the Parker bill and called for a study of the appointed board. "My first priority is to have a board that meets the needs of students," said Del. Melony G. Griffith (D). "It is not clear to me . . . whether an appointed board or an elected board gets us closer to meeting that objective."
In addition, U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), who has some clout in the county and in Annapolis, yesterday called the Prince George's school board election legislation premature. He said the appointed board has made strides that should be evaluated over the next year.
"If the fiscal situation looks good and the student performance has improved, I would be in favor of retaining the appointed school board," Wynn said. But he acknowledged that pro-election forces had gained ground with arguments for a democratically chosen board.
The group Citizens for an Elected Board plans to rally for the Parker bill Monday night at the Capitol. David L. Cahn, a federal government worker and a leader of the group, predicted House passage. "The Senate's the big hurdle," he said. "That's where we'll need to be concentrating our efforts."