Three school board candidates are on the Nov. 6 ballot.

In 2007, Maryland’s General Assembly created a new system for selecting school board members in Anne Arundel County.  An 11 member commission would nominate at least two candidates from which the governor would choose one.  At the following general election, each new school board member would face an approval vote, which led advocates for the new system to call it an “elected school board.”  So far, nine school board members have been subject to an approval vote: two in 2008, four in 2010, and three in 2012.  The three on the Nov. 6 ballot are Patricia Nalley, Stacy Korbelak, and Amalie Brandenberg.

One of the most undemocratic features of the election is its districting system.  Five of the eight adult school board members are selected from the five legislative districts in Anne Arundel County.  But as of the 2010 U.S. Census, District 21 is primarily in Prince George’s County, with approximately one-fifth of the residents of the other four districts.  For example, District 33 has 128,407 residents whereas District 21 has 26,454, or only 20.6% as many.

This not only gives District 21 candidates an advantage; it also unfairly advantages District 21 voters.  Specifically, the commission that nominates school board members includes five members selected by the governor to represent each of the five legislative districts in Anne Arundel County.  This replicates the District 21 bias, giving the District 21 commissioner disproportionate voting power in the nomination of all eight adult school board candidates.

A bigger but harder to fix democratic travesty is that another four of the eleven commission members are appointed by private entities, including the County’s Chamber of Commerce, teachers’ union, administrators’ union, and PTA.  Since it requires only three votes to veto a nomination, these groups hold effective veto power on candidate nomination.  Besides its violation of core democratic principles, the delegation of general electoral powers to private entities (even if they are nonprofits) probably violates the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, which guarantees one-person, one-vote (e.g., see Kramer v. Union Free School District No. 15, 395 U.S. 621, and Fumalaro v. Chicago Board of Education, 142 Ill 2d 54).  But as with so many of the routinely violated laws in Anne Arundel County, such as the various right-to-know laws, it’s in no one’s self-interest to enforce it.

Other violations of widely accepted democratic principles include the Board of Education’s control of the nominating commission’s meeting place, communications, and records (a clear conflict of interest, which is why election boards are typically independent), and the failure to prominently disclose commissioners’ and school board members’ family members who work in the school system or otherwise receive benefits from it.

In relation to the approval vote, as a general rule, the only way for an incumbent to lose a non-partisan approval vote for a low visibility office (such as school board member) is if a powerful special interest opposes the incumbent. This is because there is no opponent to champion an alternative and because in an approval vote the choice is literally between having and not having a representative, which advantages the incumbent.

I recommend scrapping the combined school board nominating and approval voting system and replacing it not with an elected school board but county executive appointment of the superintendent, as is now done in many big districts, including districts with K12 enrollments larger than in Anne Arundel County (e.g., Chicago and New York) and smaller (e.g., Boston and Washington, DC).  The current U.S. Secretary of Education, formerly Chicago’s superintendent, has advocated expanding such public school governance, what is more commonly called “mayoral control.”  The chief advantage of mayoral control is that the public better knows who to punish or reward and has a practical way to do so.  But assuming this proposal is unrealistic and in any case would probably be implemented without adequate care, reforming the existing system is the second best option.

The General Assembly should modify the current school board electoral system so that each school board member and nominating commission member comes from equally sized districts.  All private representatives on the nominating commission should be eliminated.  The nominating commission should have its own budget and meet outside school premises.  And commissioners’ and school board members’ conflicts of interest should either be disclosed or banned, with special focus on designing an effective ethics enforcement mechanism.