For more than a decade this county’s political leaders have disagreed on an elected vs. an appointed school board, with Republicans often supporting an elected board and Democrats supporting an appointed one. This repetitious debate has become tiresome.

Public bodies selected by either election or appointment come in many different varieties and degrees of effectiveness. Russia, Kuwait, Iran and Venezuela have elections but are nevertheless considered highly undemocratic (“electoral authoritarian regimes”). Of approximately 14,000 elected school boards in the U.S., many are also characterized by high levels of electoral authoritarianism — they are run for the benefit of insiders, not the public.

The U.S. has more than 10 times as many appointed as elected public bodies. The extent to which appointed bodies are effectively designed to fulfill their stated public purpose also varies widely.

Although only a tiny fraction of school boards is appointed, such boards are concentrated among the largest school districts, such as in Anne Arundel County (the 41st largest school district in the U.S.). One reason for this is recognition that nonpartisan board elections, which the public often demands, don’t scale well, tending with size to become overwhelmingly dominated by special interests.

The specific type of appointed school board in our county is unique. It was inspired by Maryland’s widely admired judicial nominating system. But for general-purpose governments such as school systems, it is exceedingly rare to delegate governance to private special interest groups — and for good reason, as it violates the core democratic norm of political equality.

Our say: School board issue sinks into legal morass
Our say: School board issue sinks into legal morass
Large school districts where governance is overwhelmingly dominated by a legislative entity (that is, a “school board”) — whether elected or appointed — tend to become highly undemocratic. Thus, I favor giving more power to the executive branch.

In early American history, the legislative branch dominated governance at the national, state, and local levels. Eventually it became clear that the executive branch needed to be strengthened to achieve transparent, accountable and energetic governance. This has also generally been true in Maryland, where state and local governments grant elected executives extraordinary powers in comparison to the various legislatures with which they work. The public schools, which are dominated by school boards, are outliers in this division of power.

Editor’s desk: Arguments for – and against – an elected school board are easy
Editor’s desk: Arguments for – and against – an elected school board are easy
Many of the largest school districts in the U.S. have enhanced what is known as “mayoral control” because of the recognition of the problems caused by legislature-dominated governance. For example, Mayor Bill De Blasio has been a fierce advocate for preserving mayoral control in New York City. This spring he assembled a bipartisan coalition to defend it before the New York State Legislature, arguing it is a “proven governance structure” and “superior to what we had before.”

Enhanced mayoral control comes in many different varieties, including whether the mayor can appoint the superintendent and the extent of his control over school board seats. The variety I recommend for our county is giving the county executive the power to appoint the superintendent and negotiate employee contracts. Otherwise, the board would retain its existing powers, including setting policy, designing curriculum, hearing grievances, approving budgets and providing oversight.

In Maryland, the politics of mayoral control are dismal, as the public unions strongly oppose it. But many of the best known cities with substantial mayoral control have Democratic mayors. A Democratic county executive in Prince George’s County also recently fought for more mayoral control.

Any discussion about an appointed vs. elected school board should include a discussion about how powerful the resulting board should be. That requires including a discussion about mayoral control.

Severna Park resident J.H. Snider, the president of, has written widely on issues of democratic governance and education policy. His email is

Snider, J.H., ‘Mayoral control’ best for our schools, Capital, May 27, 2016.