ANNAPOLIS, OCT. 14 -- Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer, fresh from victory in a contract dispute with county teachers, set up another confrontation over educational policy today by announcing that he will seek sweeping changes in the county's method of selecting school board members.
Lighthizer said he will ask the state legislature to give him authority to appoint school board members, who are now appointed by the governor, and negotiate salary contracts with county teachers, moves that could greatly increase his power over educational policies.
Lighthizer said the changes are needed because current school board members lack financial management skills and do not represent a cross section of the county's interests.
The proposed changes were immediately attacked by the school board president and the Teachers' Association of Anne Arundel County, which has been at loggerheads with Lighthizer over this year's teacher salary contract and is campaigning for an elected school board.
"It's alarming," said association President Susie C. Jablinske. "He's into power and control. It is kind of frightening that one individual would have this compelling need to have that much power that he would destroy the whole system."
School board President Patricia Huecker said she opposes the changes sought by Lighthizer, and said they would strip the school board of its independence. "If you have the county executive appointing the school board members, then you have, in effect, made the school system a department of county government." The change would make the school board more political and more parochial, she said.
Del. John R. Gary (R-Anne Arundel), who suggested the changes to Lighthizer two years ago, said he is drafting legislation to introduce when the General Assembly convenes in January. County delegation chairman John Astle, an Annapolis Democrat, said it is too early to predict how the 18-member delegation would vote, but he said the issue is certain to be divisive. The legislature normally approves a local measure if it is supported by the local delegation.
If Lighthizer is successful, he would be the only county executive in Maryland permitted to appoint school board members. Ten Maryland counties, including Montgomery, Prince George's and Howard, have elected school boards while the remaining 13 counties, including Anne Arundel, have school boards appointed by the governor. In Baltimore, where the school system is run as a department of city government, the board is appointed by the mayor.
Currently, in selecting the Anne Arundel board's seven members a list of school board candidates is drawn up by a nominating convention composed of community groups and is presented to the governor. In the past, the governor has not always appointed the convention's top choice, but has usually chosen somebody from its list of candidates.
However, this year Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer bypassed the list in the only appointment he made, and selected a new board member whom Lighthizer had recommended independently. Board members serve four-year staggered terms.
Lighthizer, a Democrat, has a close relationship with Schaefer and said he is confident that he could get his choices appointed in future.
The two-term executive has said the current system produces school board members who are concerned about education but lack political, financial and management know-how to run a school system with 65,000 students and a $251 million budget.
Lighthizer's outspokenness on the issue prompted the teachers in August to begin a petition drive for an elected school board.
Lighthizer has repeatedly complained about the way the school board has handled its budget. He was angry when the board negotiated an 8 percent salary increase with teachers last winter, after he warned board members that he would not fund it. When the school board passed its proposed budget on to him, he cut the teacher salary increase to 5 percent. The County Council, which has a final vote on the county's budget, subsequently increased the pay raise to 6 percent.
Teachers protested the salary increase by staging a work-to-rule protest in June and again for five weeks after classes resumed in September.
Gary said this sort of controversy can be avoided if the county executive's office participates in contract negotiations. "This is the most ridiculous situation that we've had, where the school board enters into an agreement for a pay raise without consulting the county executive about whether or not we can afford it," Gary said. "That's been what caused all the problems that we've had."
Gary said his legislation will also give Lighthizer line-item veto over the school board's budget. Currently, Lighthizer and the County Council both pass detailed school budgets.
The school board, however, can spend its money how it pleases, as long as it does not shift money parceled out in 12 budget categories.