To select a new school board member by July 1, the Governor will have to claim emergency appointment powers despite no emergency.
There is usually nothing more predictable and unexciting in Anne Arundel County politics than the appointment of school board members. I expected this year to be no different.
There was good reason to expect this year to be no different. The legal responsibility of the School Board Nominating Commission (SBNC) is to nominate at least two individuals from which the Governor must appoint one. Only two individuals applied, so the result was a foregone conclusion.
So far so good: the outcome was as predictable as expected. But then came a shock from left field. This year the primary was moved up from September to June (June 24 to be exact). But an appointed school board member doesn’t take office until July 1.
Now for the kicker: a second term governor is not allowed to appoint anyone to office after the primary election. This year the primary comes seven days before July 1, so the Governor, if he reads the law literally, cannot appoint a school board member to the open seat. The appointment—and choice—would have to wait until next January, when a new Governor takes office.
Of course, there is an out. The Governor could exercise his emergency appointment authority. But that would be stretching the definition of emergency to its tearing point. Think of it this way. If the Governor were of one party and the General Assembly of another party, the General Assembly would never allow him to get away with such a maneuver. (As a thought experiment, consider the political configuration of 2006, when a Republican was governor and the General Assembly was controlled by Democrats.)
Now it gets more interesting. When the SBNC was sold to the public in 2007 for implementation in 2008, the public was told they were getting an “elected” school board because they would get an approval vote at the next general election. But if the appointment doesn’t take place until after the November election, then instead of four months, 28 months pass between the SBNC nomination and the so-called “election.”
It’s also possible that if the appointment is made during the middle of a school board member’s term, the member would be eligible to serve for three terms (part of one plus two full five year terms) rather than just two terms (ten years). In a system that allows incumbents to stay in power as long as they make no waves, it may be the best legislative gig in Maryland.
Finally, and potentially most controversially, if School Board Member Andrew Pruski wins his election for County Council and is thus forced to resign his School Board seat, then the next governor would, in theory, be able to make two appointments to the School Board after he takes office in January (for a discussion of Pruski’s odds of winning, see Our Highly Politicized Board of Education). But consider what would happen if a Republican were elected governor and he waited to first stack the SBNC with five loyal SBNC members like the incumbent Governor has done. In this scenario, assume that a Republican (as is currently the case) also serves in the County Executive seat. Since the County Executive can appoint a sixth member, he or she could give Republicans a majority on the 11 member SBNC. There would then be great pressure for the lame duck SBNC to conduct a blitzkrieg/emergency nomination for Pruski’s replacement before the next governor took office. If anything could create an SBNC story that might actually attract public attention, this might be it. But I would still doubt it.
My bet is that the Governor will exercise his emergency powers and make the appointment on July 1 unless some powerful special interest (which isn’t going to happen) or high profile Republican entity (also highly unlikely but not totally implausible) makes a stink about it.
The First Public Hearing
The SBNC Chair’s statement about the Governor’s appointment problem slipped by in an instant with no discussion. But the rest of the two public hearings did have some newsworthy tidbits. The commissioners seemed to have let down their guard, secure in the knowledge that the hearings were effectively private and that they could trust the AACPS PR office to control the distribution of the record in a way most favorable to themselves. Those in attendance at the first hearing, for example, only included me, the two candidates, the wife of one of the candidates, another school board member, and briefly, a trusted PTA leader. That meeting was broadcast on AACPS TV but probably mostly for the benefit of school board members and AACPS administrators. The AACPS TV listings for the two hearings’ time slot said “Community Conversations” (for May 22) and “Health Matters” (for May 27). No rebroadcasts, let alone an archived webcast, were listed on the website.
The new commissioner for District 30, Erin Favazza, created a faux pas by saying she represented Speaker Mike Busch. The correct answer was that she represented District 30, although it would have been even more politically correct to say that she represented the interests of the students in the public school system. The faux pas, however, did reveal an important political truth about the SBNC: the Governor lets his allies from a legislative district essentially choose the SBNC representative from that district.
My favorite comment during the first hearing, when the two candidates answered questions from the SBNC commissioners, came after the first round of Q&A. To every question about whether something was a high priority, the candidates said yes and elaborated on why the resource allocation was vital. After countless answers along this line, this answer style became grating for any thinking listener. So the SBNC Chair, who is certainly a bright man, finally asked: “If the questions raised tonight are recurring problems with our school system, what is the problem?” He didn’t clarify exactly what he was referring to, and in the absence of specifics the candidates picked up on the fact that it was largely a rhetorical question.
But then Bob Burdon, representing the Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce, mentioned the history of the maintenance backlog in the County. He was on a committee back in the late 1990s when the backlog was only $500 million and everybody agreed it was a top priority for the County. Now it is $2 billion, and School Board candidates and members still routinely talk as though it were a high priority. (I would have added that between 2002 and 2007 the School Board’s operating budget increased by 42% while the maintenance backlog skyrocketed. But Burdon is too polite to note such long-term and pervasive discrepancies between rhetoric and action.)
During the first round of questions, Burdon had asked incumbent school board member Kevin Jackson on a scale of 1 to 10, with ten highest, what priority the maintenance backlog was for him. Jackson replied 10, 11, 12, and 14—a clever rhetorical flourish. The truth is, I do think the maintenance backlog is a very high priority for Jackson. But now, in the second round of questions, he seemed to recognize that it would be politically unwise to answer Burdon’s question with more than a vague flourish that priorities do have to be made.
However, the other candidate, Julie Hummer, when asked the same question, gave the politically shrewder answer for this audience. She said investing in teachers was more important, and she said it in such a way that I don’t think any person could disagree with her.
The Second Public Hearing
The peak moment of excitement during the two public hearings came at the end of the second hearing during the vote on the candidates. Bill Jones, representing the teachers’ union (TAAAC), had made it clear during the first hearing that he didn’t like some of the comments Jackson had made about one of the teachers’ contracts. He now announced that his vote wouldn’t reflect that unhappiness.
Kory Blake, who ostensibly represents Legislative District 21 (or the approximately quarter of it residing in Anne Arundel County), made comments during the first hearing as though he was acting as the AFSCME union leader that he is. His comments were critical of Jackson’s union contract voting statements, and now he simply voted no, the first SBNC no vote against an incumbent School Board member in recent years.
When Pam Bukowsk’s voting turn came, she also voted no. Bukowski, the president of the Anne Arundel PTA, represents the PTA on the SBNC. She is also one of ten directors of TAAAC and ran for the TAAAC vice presidency this year as well as a Maryland representative to the national teachers’ union. She also serves as the PTA representative on the Countywide Citizens (parents) Advisory Committee and served as the PTA representative on the stakeholders’ panel selecting the incoming superintendent. Unlike Blake, she hadn’t used the first hearing to express strong unhappiness with Jackson, so her vote seemed to come out of the blue. Her explanation was that her position was to serve her “constituency,” and the feedback from that “constituency” was to vote no. That was it; just a single, vague sentence. Left unspecified was who constituted that “constituency” and what the feedback was (Jones and Blake had been much more specific so that at least AACPS insiders would know what they were referring to).
Then came the zinger. The vote had been 9-2 in favor of Jackson and 11-0 in favor of Hummer. Greene had just made his final statement, noting the anticlimactic nature of sending two names to the Governor when there were only two candidates and the law mandated they send two candidates to the Governor. Just then Bukowski spoke up and said she misunderstood the rules. She thought her job was to choose between the two candidates. Now that she understood that she could vote for both, she wanted to change her vote to be in favor of Jackson.
Bukowki’s excuse for her change of vote seemed bizarre to me. The primary function of the SBNC is to nominate two individuals. It’s as simple as that, and if the SBNC Chair is eloquent about explaining anything, it is that that is the task of the SBNC. Moreover, Bukowski had served on the SBNC during a previous electoral cycle (she has been PTA president since 2012). My guess is that she simply realized it was bad politics to vote against someone who she would most likely have to work with and seek committee appointments from during the coming five years.
Who Will the Governor Choose?
So who do I expect to win? I’d be very surprised if Hummer were picked over Jackson. Jackson may occasionally ask tough questions, but he is a hard worker, popular among his fellow board members, and rarely makes trouble. His wife is also an AACPS teacher. Perhaps more important would be the optics of picking Hummer. The School Board currently has three adult male members and five adult females. That’s a big shift from the male dominated board immediately prior to the advent of the SBNC. A seven to two ratio in favor of females would arguably be too much. There are also only two African-Americans on the Board. Reducing the number to one from three just a few years ago would probably invite controversy. However, if Pruski wins a County Council seat at the November election and is forced to resign his School Board seat, I’d place Hummer’s chance at very high; indeed, the SBNC might even orchestrate the pool of candidates to facilitate that outcome.
One area where my previous political analysis of the AACPS Board may have been incomplete and thus misleading is in my analysis of Board member conflicts of interest due to spouses or children working for AACPS. Board members cannot themselves work for AACPS, but it is okay if their spouses do. All three male Board members have spouses who work for AACPS (this is down from four male Board members with such conflicts a few years ago). In contrast, not a single female one does (the exception has children and other close relatives who work for AACPS).
But it now seems to me that some of the females may have an even greater conflict of interest than the males. The females who get chosen tend to be not only quite bright and politically savvy, but also excellent moms who genuinely love their children and got involved in the schools largely to improve the schools for those children. Such Board members tend to be wildly popular with the parents, who instinctively identify with them. But from the standpoint of democratic accountability, the downside is that the loved ones can become a type of hostage to AACPS staff. It just doesn’t make any sense for a shrewd and loving mother—at least not one who wants to be on the School Board–to engage in any behavior that might invite retribution on her children.
The SBNC’s Next Meeting
The next meeting of the SBNC will be early next fall, which is an unprecedented time for the SBNC to hold a meeting. The meeting will discuss SBNC procedure. For many years, I have vigorously complained that the SBNC waits to see who the candidates are likely to be, especially whether the incumbent School Board member will run for another term, before deciding on the procedures for the coming election cycle. This violates the core democratic principle known as the “veil of Ignorance,” which implies in this context that government election procedures should be chosen without regard to specific candidates. At the second hearing, I praised the SBNC for scheduling the meeting. But it is so tempting for SBNC commissioners to want to maximize their power by waiting until late in an election cycle to choose election procedures that I strongly doubt there will be a serious effort to address this problem at this public meeting.
Of course, it’s also possible that the key decisions will be made in secret; for example, via the use of email-based virtual meetings using private email accounts. Illustratively, this year the SBNC held no administrative public meeting prior to the two public hearings. Yet the SBNC had to make many administrative decisions prior to the public hearings. Given that there is no credible enforcement mechanism of the Open Meetings Act for a public body such as the SBNC, this must be considered a possibility. Indeed, I have filed complaints with the Open Meetings Compliance Board regarding secret SBNC administrative meetings in prior years. However, as long as the final rules are in written form and made publicly accessible in a timely way, the harm from abusing Maryland’s right-to-know laws should be contained.
As of June 5, 2014, the most recent SBNC minutes published on the AACPS website was from May 29, 2012—more than two years ago. My coverage of last year’s meetings can be foundhere and here. My coverage of meetings from 2008-2013 can be found here.
1) Snider, J.H., Big Surprise at Meeting to Select New AACPS School Board Members, Anne Arundel Patch, June 5, 2014.
2) Snider, J.H., Big Surprise at Meeting to Select New AACPS School Board Members, Watchdog Wire, June 11, 2014.