As you probably know by now, school board member Tricia Johnson has been appointed to the County Council, thus opening up a seat on the school board for a 4 year term. The School Board Nominating Commission (SBNC) has announced in a press release that it will accept applications until July 22 (eight days from its announcement) and hold a single meeting on July 28 to interview candidates. The vote to select the candidates will take place the following day, July 29. No mention is made whether the July 28 meeting will be televised.

This is a tremendously truncated version of the selection process the SBNC used during its first two rounds of operation. The justification for this compression is the immediate need to fill a vacant seat. But why the rush? Even without the replacement for this at-large seat, the school board will have 8 members—the full size of the school board for many decades until its July 1, 2008 enlargement to 9 members.

My judgment is that selecting a school board member in such a rushed manner sets a bad precedent. Whoever is selected will have control of a $1 billion/year budget for four years—as long a term as a governor, county executive, county councilor, or delegate to the General Assembly. It’s too important a position to needlessly rush.

On the other hand, vacancies for other important offices have been picked relatively quickly. Consider the recent selections of Maryland senator and county councilor in Anne Arundel County. From Senator Janet Greenip’s retirement announcement to Councilman Ed Reilly’s selection as a replacement took only a few months; and from Councilman Reilly’s resignation to School Board member Tricia Johnson’s selection as a replacement took only a bit less time.

But there are four noteworthy differences. First, those officials represented geographic constituencies who would lose representation and thus valuable resources if they weren’t quickly replaced. In contrast, school board members are expected to represent the interests of all children regardless of geographic location.

Second, it may be impractical to hold a special election, thus necessitating that an appointment process be used; appointment processes by their nature are almost always faster than special elections. In contrast, no special process is required of the SBNC when a vacancy opens up; indeed, the law mandates that its basic nominating process be the same regardless of whether or not it is filling a vacancy.

Third, the viable candidates for those offices are typically well known by both the public and those who will do the selecting. Thus, there is relatively little information to gather. For example, Ed Reilly was County Council Chair and Tricia Johnson a long time school board member before being selected for their new positions. In contrast, school board candidates are typically less well known, so more public deliberation is necessary, unless the intent is to give insiders an advantage.

Fourth, those who do the selecting are usually elected officials themselves and thus directly accountable for their actions. In contrast, there is much less public accountability for SBNC officials. One reason for the SBNC to have a more deliberative selection process is so that the public has a chance to observe it and assess the extent to which it is functioning as its representative.

Nevertheless, my overall sense is that the rush won’t make much difference; the same set of candidates would probably win either way.

–Jim Snider

P.S. Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board has yet to respond to my May 12, 2009 complaint concerning the SBNC’s violations of Maryland’s right-to-know laws. The SBNC responded on Jun 29—ten days later than required by law. Last year the Open Meetings Compliance Board ruled against the SBNC on a related matter.

For related articles in the Capital, see:

Eric Hartley: Musical chairs leaves out voters, July 16, 2009

Panel to decide how to fill school board vacancy, July 16, 2009.