When Charles County commissioners and school system leaders discuss legislative proposals Tuesday morning over sausage and eggs, they are unlikely to broach the unappetizing question of how to fill vacancies on the Board of Education.
School board members voted last week to retain responsibility for filling openings such as the one created by the recent resignation of Kathy Levanduski. They are also sticking to past practice by working behind closed doors to select her replacement.
But the issue is expected to resurface at a commissioners' legislative forum next month. The local teachers union has proposed legislation that would task county commissioners with the job and open up the process to the public.
By Friday afternoon, 32 county residents had applied for the position.
Commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large) said last week that the list of applicants and interviews should be public.
"What's the big secret? That's part of being in public office. There's nothing hidden," Cooper said in an interview. The board, he said, is "considering this as a personnel issue, but the way I look at it, it's a political issue. That person could be running and elected by the voters a year from now."
Cooper, a former school board member, said he is undecided about whether school board members or commissioners should be charged with picking replacements.
School board Chairman Margaret Young said that applicants can publicize their own candidacies but that a public process might discourage qualified people from applying.
"There's nothing stopping the candidates from saying, 'Hey, world, I'm applying,' " she said. "There are people who care deeply and want to be involved, but they don't want to go through the media circus and the political microscope. They want to serve the students and the school system."
Jennifer S. Abell, the board's vice chairman, was appointed in 2004 after Rebecca Bolton Bridgett stepped down to lead the county's Department of Social Services.
Abell said she is of two minds about the process. As a parent, she said, she "would want to know the pool of applicants to see who we're choosing from."
But if the process had been public last year, she would not have signed up. In an interview, Abell said that she was unfamiliar with the politics and that "the whole idea of running scared me to death."
The law states that voting school board members in Charles "shall select a qualified individual to fill any vacancy." Montgomery County is the only other jurisdiction in the state with that procedure.
The Education Association of Charles County, which represents public school teachers, is lobbying for legislation that would shift the responsibility to county commissioners and follow the process used in Calvert, St. Mary's, Frederick, Worchester and Garrett counties. In the remaining counties, the governor or county executive is responsible for filling vacancies.
Bill Fisher, the union's president, has said commissioners would be more objective.
"Asking the board to replace one of its own colleagues can cause divisive infighting and may involve questions about personal agendas and alliances rather than leading to selection of the best candidate for the job," Fisher said in his legislative request to Cooper.
Charles law also leaves it to the school board to determine the details of the procedures used to fill vacancies. The union has complained that the private process adopted to fill the current vacancy violates the state open meetings law, but the school system's attorney has said the appointment process is an "executive function" that can be conducted privately.
At issue are concerns from the teachers union that Levanduski's replacement will shift the balance on the board further toward a majority they consider too conservative.
In a 4 to 0 vote last week, school board members supported the existing process. Abell said those closest to the issues are better positioned than commissioners to fill vacancies.
"The people that work in that domain every day should choose the replacement," Abell said.
School board members Donald M. Wade and Cecil Marshall, who typically aligned with Levanduski, declined to vote.
Wade has said he favors a public process. When asked about his abstention last week, Wade said he was uncomfortable speaking out again because he was worried about repercussions from the board majority.
"Folks pound away at you when you step outside," Wade said. "I prefer not to discuss it because I get myself in trouble with the board."