With the election of a Republican governor and county executive, it is finally feasible to reform our county’s system of selecting school board members. Until now, the Democrats monopolized the process and had no interest in changing it. But the change in power means that by the last year of the incoming governor’s term, the tables will be turned. Power will have shifted to Republicans, at which time it will be the Democrats clamoring for reform. The interim is a good opportunity for a deal to be struck.

In theory, the electoral system works this way: The School Board Nominating Commission must nominate at least two individuals from whom the governor must appoint one. The commission has 11 members, five appointed by the governor (one from each of the county’s legislative districts), one by the county executive, one by the teachers’ union, one by the administrators’ union, one by the PTA, one by the community college and one by the Chamber of Commerce. The governor also appoints the commission’s chairman.

Thus, the combined appointment powers of the governor and county executive allow control of the commission’s agenda and nominations. This actually underestimates their potential power, because of the county executive’s indirect power over the commissioners appointed by the community college and the Chamber of Commerce.

By statute, six commission members are needed to nominate a school board candidate. Six members of the commission, however, have agreed that eight votes are needed to nominate a member, giving four members veto power. But this provision could be easily overturned by the vote of any six members.

Commissioners appointed by a governor serve four years terms, most of them now staggered, so the transfer of power to the incoming governor and county executive will be gradual. It may not be formally complete until Governor Hogan and County Executive Schuh’s fourth year in office, but it could be effectively complete several years before then. It would then take up to four years after that to secure a majority on the school board. Between now and July 1, the commission will have to nominate half of the eight current adult Board of Education members.

Unlike many other appointments, Hogan’s school board appointments do not depend on General Assembly approval. So, from one perspective, he has absolute power to shape the school board, assuming he wins a second term.

The Democratic-controlled General Assembly will soon come to abhor this control, which once worked to its advantage, so we can expect a bout of reform proposals. It will be interesting to see if this includes exposing some of the commission’s dirty linen.

The Republicans have been pushing for an elected school board, which would be an improvement over the current process, but not necessarily by much. Just as there are good and bad designs for an appointed school board (we have a very badly designed one), there are good and bad designs for an elected school board. So far, the proposals for an elected school board have been on the ill-designed side of that scale, perhaps because Republicans knew they had no chance of passing.

An elected or an appointed school board could be a big improvement over the status quo if it were designed well. The most important reform would be one that strengthens what is known as “mayoral” control, which in this case would refer to the county executive. I favor this type of governance because school board elections in giant school districts like ours are characterized by abysmal voter ignorance and manipulation. Mayoral actions and elections are much more visible and thus facilitate public accountability.

But mayoral control also comes in many varieties. My baseline is mayoral appointment of the superintendent, and superintendent control of contract negotiations — with the Board of Education retaining substantial power over policy, curriculum, student grievances and oversight. Thus, even under mayoral control, the question of appointed vs. elected school board doesn’t disappear; it is only reduced in importance. But public employee unions are fiercely opposed to more mayoral control, so the only politically feasible outcome would probably be along the current appointed vs. school board battle lines.

Severna Park resident J.H. Snider frequently writes about education policy. He can be reached at snider@eLighthouse.info.


Source: Snider, J.H., School governance can be fixed, Capital, November 20, 2014.