Charles County Board of Education members charted a closed-door course this week for selecting Kathy Levanduski's successor, prompting criticism from the teachers union and advocates for open government.
The board will accept applications from candidates through Oct. 28 and conduct private interviews with those who seek to fill the vacancy created when board member Levanduski announced her resignation last week. The names of applicants also will be kept confidential, the board announced Tuesday.
The decision not to release the names of applicants follows past practice. The board followed a similar path in selecting Jennifer S. Abell to fill a vacancy last year.
"We thought it was a good process, and that's the way we're going to do it this time," board Chairman Margaret Young said.
But the Education Association of Charles County and Common Cause said it was in the public's interest to disclose the list of candidates for an elected office.
James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said there is a distinction between appointing professional staff, such as a superintendent, and filling vacancies on an elected board.
"This isn't a secret business dealing where the losing party will have its finances disclosed," he said. "This is to see who runs the schools and is of interest to everyone in the county."
The local teachers organization wants to know who will be considered and what questions will be asked, and association officers have consulted their state office to explore the legal implications of the board's plans to act in private.
"We have a whole lot of problem with it because it's a public office that would normally be elected by the public," said Meg MacDonald, a representative of the local union.
Maryland's Open Meetings Act allows the board to work in private session when it is not enacting policy or making budget decisions. A state panel on the issue has interpreted the law to allow boards to hold closed-door meetings to discuss personnel issues such as hiring.
Montgomery County is the only other jurisdiction in the state where school board members -- not the governor or county officials -- are charged with filling vacancies on the panel, according to Charles schools staff attorney Eric Schwartz.
When Montgomery filled a vacancy on its school board in 2004, the names of all applicants were "public from the beginning,'' said Kate Harrison, a spokeswoman for the school system.
"They are public figures, and therefore their names were public if they were interested in applying," she said. A vote by the Montgomery board on the four finalists also was conducted during a public meeting.
At the heart of the union's complaint are concerns about the direction of the board in the wake of Levanduski's departure. She stepped down last week for personal reasons.
The person who replaces Levanduski will serve the remainder of her term, which runs through December 2006, on the seven-member panel, which has often split 4 to 3. The union is concerned that her successor will tip the scales further, giving the conservative majority a 5 to 2 advantage.
"There's been a split on the board between people whose voices are mainstream and those people who are more conservative," MacDonald said. "It's very important that the person that replaces Levanduski mirror her vision for the school system. That's who the public elected."
Young said the Charles school board was satisfied with the procedures it followed after Rebecca Bolton Bridgett left the board to lead the county Department of Social Services. After interviewing 16 candidates, the board selected Abell, director of the March of Dimes of Southern Maryland.
"It's just the process the board decided on. It is an appointed position, it's not an elected" one, she said of the vacancy, adding that there is nothing in the law "that says it has to be done in public."
Any Charles County resident who is registered to vote may apply. Candidates must submit a resume, cover letter stating their interest and a signed statement verifying voter registration. Send applications to Superintendent James E. Richmond, PO Box 2770, La Plata, Md. 20646. Applications must be postmarked or hand-delivered by 4:30 p.m. Oct. 28. For more information, call 301-932-6610.