J.H. Snider’s Testimony Before
The Maryland General Assembly –
Anne Arundel County House Delegation –
Room 145 Lowe House Office Building, 4:00 pm, September 13, 2016
About a decade ago Maryland’s General Assembly held another public hearing on the selection process for AACPS board members. As it would turn out, the questions addressed at that public hearing would have little or nothing to do with the selection system ultimately chosen.
In 2006, after that public hearing, I was at the Children’s Theater of Annapolis, where both Speaker Busch and I had a child rehearsing for the Wizard of Oz. I explained to him that the debate in Anne Arundel over an elected school board focused far too much on the general election process and that more attention needed to be paid to the nominating process. Many electoral systems are highly undemocratic. Political scientists even have a term to characterize such electoral systems: “electoral authoritarianism.”
Some months later the Speaker came up with the proposal for a school board nominating process nominally modeled after the judicial nominating system. I was not opposed to the basic concept of a nominating commission, but I was unhappy with the proposed implementation. It was a radically new system of nominating school board members not used anywhere else in the United States, yet the bill was rushed through the General Assembly like a classic special interest rider passed in the dead of night. But unlike such riders, which are usually very carefully drafted, this one was full of sloppy errors that would necessitate many legal opinions over the coming years.
I hope that this committee will pay more attention to public feedback and with more humility about getting the details right.
I will make just four brief recommendations here. I am in favor of more executive control, what is commonly called “mayoral control” in the public policy literature, because of the enhanced transparency and democratic accountability associated with such a governance system. I’d like to submit for the public record an op-ed I published in the Capital outlining that proposal.
For school board elections, I recommend consideration of an electoral system known as Mixed-member Proportional. I don’t expect committee members to be familiar with that electoral system. But it is used in Germany and New Zealand, two of the world’s most successful democracies. It is also used in Scotland and Wales, two regions of the United Kingdom. I recognize that partisan school board elections are a political non-starter in Anne Arundel County. But multi-party electoral systems are essential for a well-functioning democracy. Mixed-member Proportional, in my judgment, keeps the good features of multiparty democracy while minimizing the bad. A less radical proposal would be some type of proportional electoral system with multi-member districts.
Along with more so-called “mayoral control,” I’d recommend consideration of an elected countywide public advocate, modeled loosely after New York City’s public advocate. Such an advocate would serve as an ombudsman for school government, providing oversight for the school system, investigating citizens’ complaints about school services, and making proposals to address perceived shortcomings or failures of those services. Such an advocate would provide a purely informational function but nevertheless have real power. Alternatively, the information function of the school board could be enhanced but that would require a very, very different type of school board design than we currently have.
Lastly, I would encourage you to consider how to curtail the culture of public intimidation toward potential critics that has become embedded in the DNA of AACPS governance. AACPS holds the public’s children hostage and that is a power that must be wielded with the utmost responsibility. There must be greater safeguards that its staff doesn’t abuse that power. Without a healthy civic culture, even the best electoral system in the world won’t be worth the parchment it is written on. For a discussion of this culture of intimidation, see my blog eLighthouse.info.