Three former chairmen of the Charles County Board of Education spoke out this week in favor of creating a recall process that they say would make board members more responsive to public complaints.
At a public hearing Monday night on the legislative proposals that the county government might seek from the 2005 session of the General Assembly, James Gesl, Sharon Caniglia and Edith Patterson criticized the direction of the school board and said the public needs to be able to remove members between elections.
"I'm asking you to establish a process . . . for Board of Education members who simply aren't doing their jobs," said Gesl, the sponsor of the proposal, who was a board member from 1992 to 1998.
In recent months, the board has been criticized for a list of school system goals suggested by members that included adding creationism to the science curriculum, allowing Bibles to be distributed in schools and barring books containing "immorality" or "foul language" from reading lists. Hundreds of people turned out for a school board meeting last month to oppose what many saw as an attempt to inject a conservative religious ideology into the public schools.
"Most of those comments have been ignored. The process in place is not working," said Caniglia, who served on the board for 12 years, until 2000. Board members "need to listen to the people who are voicing their concerns. . . . There are a lot of children at stake here."
Patterson, who was on the board from 1982 to 1994, said it's "very apparent now that over a short period, there's a potential for dismantling public education as we know it."
Maryland has no recall provisions. A school board member may be removed by the State Board of Education for reasons such as willful neglect of duty or certain misconduct. While details of the recall process have not been established, it would entail collecting a certain number of signatures on a petition and then holding a county-wide vote, said Meg MacDonald, a representative of the Education Association of Charles County. She said a county Board of Elections staff member estimated it would cost $50,000 to $60,000 to carry out such a recall election.
But the idea of repeating in miniature the fevered political spectacle that brought Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governor's office in California did not appeal to everyone at the meeting. County Commissioner Al Smith (R-Waldorf) said he opposes a recall provision because it could intimidate board members during the decision-making process.
"You have this threat of recall hanging as a cloud," he said. "I think we're destroying the very sense of democracy that we have about electing the people in the first place."
Board members were divided on the issue. Chairman Kathy Levanduski said she supported the idea "100 percent" because it empowers the public to have more involvement in governing the school system.
"I'm not threatened by it at all," she said. "I think people need to have options, and that would give them an option."
But board member Margaret Young described the proposal as a "knee-jerk response to rumors" about the board's intentions. The board has not discussed the list of goals, and none has been implemented, she said.
"It's silly," she said. "Do you really want to go through that California process and make a mockery of the county, just because you don't agree with some list that was printed?"
Before 2002, Board of Education elections were held every two years, and the change to a four-year cycle was advocated by Gesl and Caniglia, among others, Young said.
"I find it very entertaining that now all of a sudden they want to have a recall process that would change the board more frequently," Young said.
The county commissioners will schedule a work session in the coming weeks to decide which proposed legislation will be recommended to the county's state legislative delegation. Beyond the recall debate, 19 other pieces of legislation were included in the package.
They include two related proposals to cap county taxes for senior citizens. One would freeze the county real estate tax payment for those who have lived in Charles for at least 20 years and are 70 or older. The other, submitted by the council for the Richard R. Clark Senior Center in La Plata, would cap property taxes at the current rate for all residents 65 or older. A similar proposal has been floated this year in St. Mary's County for the second time, after the bill stalled in committee last year.
"We felt that seniors really have a hard time when they turn 65; their income is more or less fixed. They're living off Social Security . . . while everything else is going up, property taxes being one of those," said Frederick Benson, chairman of the council. "This would help them survive and live more comfortably."
But officials said they needed to determine how much revenue the county would lose from a tax cap before supporting either proposal.
"I have no idea" how much it would cost, said state Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles). "If it's $2 million, I think the county commissioners need to know how they're going to cover a $2 million loss of revenue."