Over the years, state legislators have introduced numerous bills to move Anne Arundel County from an appointed to an elected school board. During the last election, many winning legislators promised to introduce more such bills. Can the fatal defects of the earlier bills be fixed?

The move for an elected school board gained impetus last spring. In filling an at-large position on the school board, Gov. Parris N. Glendening decided to bypass the Anne Arundel School Board Nominating Convention’s recommended first and second choices. This decision generated a firestorm of protest.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries many mayors appointed school personnel, including school board members. Cronyism, nepotism and patronage were major factors in these appointments. This led to a push for elected school boards.

Even when so-called experts are appointed, they tend to be sycophantic legislators (Why criticize the person who brought you to the dance?) and lousy at constituent service (Why bother when you’re not elected?).

Today, more than 90 percent of the nation’s 15,000 school boards are elected. But there has been a small shift back to appointed boards, especially in large school districts.

For very few people – looking at ballots listing candidates for everything from U.S. president to county council members – pay attention to school board elections. And ignorance and democracy don’t mix well. The state legislature recently had to dissolve Prince George’s County’s dysfunctional elected school board due to its gross mismanagement. Elected school boards are no panacea.

About 4 percent of school boards now combine elected and appointed members. For politicians, this often seems like a good compromise. But there is little evidence a mixed system does much to fix the underlying weaknesses of elected and appointed boards.

School board nominating conventions are designed to make better-informed choices than the voters who pick elected school boards, while blocking the drift to patronage and cronyism seen in appointed ones. Convention delegates spend a lot of time questioning candidates. These elite delegate-voters arguably get more high-quality information out of the candidates than is garnered in any other election in Maryland, except perhaps for high-profile races like that for governor.

But nominating convention delegates are still ultimately self-selected. They don’t really represent the public they purport to represent. Both delegates and candidates are discouraged from participating in the time-consuming process because of the possibility the governor will ignore the result.

Convention officers are unpaid, hard to recruit, and prone to sloppiness and arbitrary, spur-of-the-moment decision-making. The convention also lacks the rigorous due process requirements of conventional democratic institutions. The rules are sketchy, unenforced – perhaps unenforceable. The system relies on goodwill.

In my judgment, the ideal electoral system for our schools would be an elected school board. But this is desirable only if the quality of information available to the public can be radically improved.

So I suggest modernizing and enhancing the school board nominating convention while leaving the final authority in the hands of the voters, rather than the governor.

Among the numerous changes needed: The nominating convention should be televised on both the Internet and cable television. And its recommendations should be printed on the ballot next to each candidate’s name.

There are other important issues I haven’t addressed here:

Should school board elections be held annually with staggered terms (the current system) or grouped less frequently (as with most nonschool elections)?

Should candidates be elected at-large or by district?

Should voting be yes-or-no (the current system) or rank-ordered (which is preferred by many political scientists)?

Should nominating convention delegates be largely self-selected (the current system) or chosen by random sampling (the way juries and some presidential debate audiences are selected)?

But none of this changes my central point: The prerequisite for creating a truly democratic school board election is to create the conditions necessary for an informed public.

The writer, a Severna Park resident, was the top vote-getter of five candidates at the 2002 Anne Arundel School Board Nominating Convention. He is a fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Source: Snider, J.H., Best way to pick school board: Informed voters, Capital, December 29, 2002.