After a recent speech at Owen Brown Middle School in Columbia, Del. Frank S. Turner (D-Howard) no longer had any doubts that Howard County school board members should be more like him.
As he was leaving, frantic parents and faculty ran up to him with a list of grievances and concerns about the school. Small things: a repair here, a policy question there. "This was stuff that the school board members should be dealing with, not necessarily me. Yet they were coming to me because they had no local representation on education," Turner said.
Unlike school board members, who are elected countywide, Turner was sent to Annapolis by the eastern Columbia district where the school is located. Those parents did not seek out a school board member because, without a local representative, it was unclear who they should go to, he said.
In November, Turner will introduce legislation that would require school board members to be elected by districts--as legislators are.
The five current board members, who serve six-year terms, are unanimously opposed. They say district elections would politicize the board, resulting in a damaging parochialism: more concern with bringing home the educational bacon to districts than with what's best for all Howard students.
"If you represent a district, your job is to bring home goodies. [Turner] is attempting to bring his district a school board member, whether they're the most qualified or not," said school board Vice Chairman Stephen C. Bounds.
Turner, who unsuccessfully pushed the proposal in 1996, said he has become frustrated with the school board's tenacious opposition to his idea.
"They're against it because they feel threatened. Change is difficult, and they're trying to protect the status quo," he said. "I'm just trying to make a great system better."
The quality of the Howard school system is undisputed. By most measures, Howard, along with Montgomery County, ranks at the top of the state's school districts. Families moving to Howard routinely list the schools as a primary draw. So then, board members ask, why try to change the school board? Isn't it performing splendidly?
"If something is broken here, you fix it. No one has told me what's broken here," Bounds said.
Turner said the school system's status is in danger. "We do have a strong school system, but if you look at the test scores, you'll see that Carroll County and Harford County are catching up to us," he said.
Carroll, like Howard, elects school board members countywide. In Anne Arundel, Harford and Baltimore counties, board members are appointed by elected officials. Prince George's and Montgomery counties elect members by district.
According to Howard board members, some of their Prince George's counterparts are not happy with the arrangement. "Members of the P.G. school board have confided to me that they wish it wasn't so political," Bounds said.
Howard board members, who run in nonpartisan elections, said they manage to reach compromises with civility and often find themselves agreeing on policy, despite differences in their political leanings.
"I can tell you that our board has a much better relationship with the community and each other because we are truly a nonpartisan board. It helps to be nonpartisan when you're not affiliated with districts," said Chairwoman Karen B. Campbell.
If Turner gets his way, board members will be forced to fight over educational spoils, then tout them in ever-more expensive reelection campaigns, board members said. They even foresee a time when board members might run on tickets with Howard County Council candidates.
"It will force us into a more partisan position. Partisanship has been completely absent from the school board in my five years," Bounds said.
But Turner sees a flip side to district elections: accountability.
"I think it's important that there be some local representative that residents can look to when problems come up," Turner said. "It's very important that people know their representative and can talk to them." He added: "Besides, you still need three votes to get anything through. You still have to compromise."
Turner plans to introduce his proposal at a public hearing at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 18 in the Banneker Room of the George Howard county government building in Ellicott City. Shortly after, he plans to submit the proposal to the Howard delegation in the Maryland legislature for a vote.
Five of eight delegates and two of three senators have to vote "yea" for the proposal to go before the full General Assembly, which would be expected to honor the wishes of the county delegation. When he tried in 1996, the proposal got one vote--his. This time around, he has three co-sponsors among delegates.
Mixed into the debate is the issue of Columbia vs. the Rest of Howard.
"Currently, we have no board members who live east of [Route] 29," said Turner, repeating a common refrain of his in the weeks he has been pushing his proposal.
Two of the five board members live in Columbia, but they live west of Route 29, in a district not represented by Turner. Most of Columbia is east of Route 29. That part of Columbia, Howard's largest community, is not now represented on the board.
"I would love to see a strong slate of candidates come from all parts of the county. Over the last few years that hasn't happened," Bounds said. "I don't know why--other than the fact that it is a position that carries with it great responsibility and scrutiny without much compensation--but why more people from east of [Route] 29 haven't stepped up in recent years, I can't answer."
Moreover, board members said, where members live has never been at issue before.
"Where I live has never been an issue in an election," Campbell said, "until now at least."