For more than 20 years, Anne Arundel legislators have argued about whether county school board members should be appointed or elected. The issue is being debated once again, but this time lawmakers are optimistic about a change.
County Executive John R. Leopold (R) and first-year Sen. Bryan Simonaire (R-Pasadena) are pushing bills to change how school board members are chosen, but they disagree on a method.
Currently, parents, community groups and others offer the governor a list of candidates to appoint to the board. But the governor is not obligated to select from the list.
"Right now people don't have a voice in the process," Simonaire said. "There's no accountability, there's no say for residents."
Leopold said he had counted at least six instances in which a school board member appointed by the governor wasn't recommended by the nominating commission.
"It breeds cynicism," he said. "Why should the people doing all the hard work of the nominating committee participate when their results are just thrown out of the window by political decisions made behind the scenes?"
Leopold and Simonaire want residents to have more say. Simonaire wants members to be elected from the county's seven council districts. (There is also a student member). But first, he said, voters should decide in a referendum whether they want an elected board.
Leopold favors a bill creating an 11-member nominating committee and requiring the governor to appoint school board members from the committee's list. Members would have to be approved by voters to serve a second term.
Seven school systems out of 24 in Maryland have appointed school boards. The others have elected boards. Officials in Harford and Baltimore counties and in Baltimore are also pushing to begin electing their boards.
Simonaire said his measure has been supported by the League of Women Voters, the PTA Council and the teachers union.
Meanwhile, Leopold argues that his bill, which was introduced by Sen. John C. Astle (D-Annapolis), is the best possible solution to end the long debate. Leopold, a veteran county legislator, said he once introduced a bill for a referendum to directly elect school board members only to see it fail because the county delegation couldn't agree on it.
"A consensus cannot be built around the referendum and direct elections," he said.
The General Assembly must approve any change in the way the school board is selected. Typically, the legislature does not support local bills that lack the backing of the county delegation.
Leopold wants the new nominating committee to have members appointed by the county executive, the teachers union, the PTA Council and the county Chamber of Commerce. Leopold said his bill is backed by House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), the Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce and the teachers union.
Tim Mennuti, president of the teachers union, said his group is supporting both bills.
"After waiting for this so many years, we will support anything that gets the selection process back to the voters. That's what we want," he said. "It seems like this time, one way or another, something is going to come out of this session. So we're hopeful."