“Not living in AA anymore, and now having both of my children out of AACPS… I feel fairly free to comment… One of my children (within this decade) was on that selection committee twice. She was put under unconscionable pressure to vote for candidates acceptable to what was then the power establishment at Riva Road (and against those who were deemed to be potential “troublemakers”. And while completely unprovable… because she did not play ball she was indeed refused a scholarship that was customarily given to her predecessors who held those positions. I have said in many forums… The AA School Board selection process would make any third world banana republic dictator embarrassed that he didn’t think it up himself.”

–Rick Streeter, Former Vice Chair of the Countywide CAC,
Comment published in the Capital, July 12, 2016.

he nominating commission that picks the three SMOB candidates is arguably the key election process for the student member of the Board of Education (“SMOB”), as it gives Anne Arundel County Public School System (AACPS) staff de facto veto power over SMOB candidates. As I argued in my Washington Post op-ed, the commission is designed to facilitate AACPS staff intimidation of the students’ voice.  The commission’s proceedings, including interviews, roll call votes, and ethical guidelines, have been secret.  But arguably most notable is that the names of school officials who participate in the commission’s secret proceedings have been treated as secret information.  Incentives for parents, students, reporters, and politicians to ask about and report on this corrupt process giving disproportionate influence to AACPS staff have been abysmal (for analogous incentives, recall the late-20th Century sex scandals involving the Baltimore Archdiocese, including Anne Arundel County).

On April 15, 2016, I attended the final and only nominally public stage of the election process, where the three nominees selected by the nominating commission debate in front of the student electors who then vote on the nominees. This year the final election was held at South River High School. It was the first time I had attended the election; I believe it was also the first time that the Capital education reporter attended the election.

At the entrance, I made it through security by informing security that I had been invited to the election by the election’s organizers. I was then greeted by a student who said he was expecting me and announced that, like the handler for the Capital’s education reporter, Cindy Huang, he’d be following me wherever I went.

I arrived as the SMOB election was just beginning and sat in the front row so I could video record the process. (The election debates should have been televised in the first place so no citizen would have to undergo the horrors I was about to go through.)

The Debate Format

The three SMOB nominees gave five-minute opening presentations. This was followed by Q&A where the CRASC President (CRASC is the Anne Arundel County student council) asked the three candidates a simple question with no follow-up.  The nominees answered in a minute or two.  Unlike presidential debates, the nominees never disagreed or responded to each other.  To do otherwise would clearly have been viewed as uncouth.  The candidates were there to answer the CRASC President like a student answers a teacher’s question.  The questions asked by the CRASC President were presumably based on student questions, but the overall feel was of a tightly scripted top-down process.

The nominees’ resumes were each one page long and posted online the day before the election (here is the resume for the winning nominee).  The agenda for the day’s election was posted the day of the election.

Asking a Politically Sensitive Question

After the student presentations, the students left the room to both eat lunch and to vote in a separate room set up for secure voting.  During the break, I approached some CRASC officers to ask them what they and I recognized to be a politically sensitive question: what were the names of the individuals on the interview panel (what I call the “nominating commission” because of its similar structure to the nominating commission for adult school board members) that selected the three nominees today? (For my prior requests for this information from the CRASC President, CRASC Vice President, CRASC Advisor, and AACPS Public Information Office, see Public Information Act request for the SMOB nominating commission member names.)

The officers I now approached included the CRASC President, the CRASC Second Vice President (different from the CRASC Vice President), CRASC Secretary, my handler, and the CRASC Advisor.  I also asked the question to a student the Capital reporter was interviewing.  All refused to answer my question.  When the CRASC Second Vice President began to answer my question, the CRASC President said he wasn’t allowed to (the Second Vice President did get out, however, that Richard Benfer, TAAAC’s President, and Kristina Dyson, a student nominated on behalf of the superintendent, were panel members).  Then a woman who had been lurking near the President said I wouldn’t be allowed to talk to the officers any more and the officers weren’t allowed to reveal this information).  When I asked the woman to identify herself, she refused to do so.  When I then asked a student who that person was, I was told she was Sarah Pelham, who is the Assistant Superintendent in charge of SMOB elections.

I suspect the composition of the nominating commission for the SMOB is treated as controversial information because of the extraordinary gatekeeping power of AACPS staff over who is nominated; because the process used this year violated CRASC’s Constitution (which specified a different procedure than the one actually used); because of the secrecy and lack of due process with which the change in the nominating commission (the “election rules”) was implemented in Fall 2014; because until Fall 2014 there was no CRASC approved document (not posted publicly until Fall 2015) specifying that the secret proceedings of the nominating commission could include high level AACPS “observers;” because of the long-term AACPS practice of issuing press releases that hid from the public the names and activities of the AACPS nominating commission “observers” (who I would characterize as serving as “student intimidators” on behalf of AACPS staff); and because the procedures for the adult school board nominating commission had recently become extraordinarily controversial but were in fact models of transparency and democratic accountability compared to the secret student nominating commission procedures. There may also be other reasons of which I’m not aware. The one excuse used to hide all the commissioners’ names–that students (minors) were on the commission–was clearly bogus.

After the break, I began to video record again but was immediately cut off by a stern individual who demanded I stop.  And if I didn’t stop, I’d be led out by the police. I was startled and asked her who she was and on what grounds she was making such a demand, and she refused to say. She left and came back a few minutes later and identified herself as the South River High School assistant principal. I was then walked to a security office where a uniformed policewoman grilled me.  The officer wanted to know if I had video recorded anything and told me that I should give up such video or I would be arrested.  I asked on what grounds she was making such a request. She replied that the school board had made the request. I reacted with disbelief, and the officer acknowledged it was an AACPS official acting on behalf of the school board. When I demanded to know who that individual was, I was told it was Sarah Pelham.

I told the officer that the CRASC President and CRASC Advisor had both invited me to attend the election (e.g., see my correspondence with the CRASC President in the Capital comments section on March 31, 2016), that the CRASC Advisor had informed me that I would be treated as a reporter (specifically, that it was decided that I should be treated as a reporter and as such all my requests for information would have to be processed via the Public Information Office), that I had covered the school board nominating process at great length at eLighthouse.info, and that at no point prior to attending the nominally public election debate had I been told that videotaping it would not be allowed. (Note: much of my career has been devoted to seeking more open government; for a sample of my writings on that subject, see iSolon.org; for my attention to procedural detail in the context of the nominating commission for adult school board members, see here.)

I was commanded to stay in the officer’s office while being supervised by the assistant principal and while the officer went out to talk to the assistant superintendent out of sight and ear range. The overall atmosphere made me feel like a bad, bad student who had been sent to detention. I was also informed that I would be arrested if I attempted to leave. I considered that threat bullying and totally inappropriate. After a break that seemed like it was at least ten minutes, the officer returned and informed me that I was free to go. Now very friendly, the officer confirmed that a mistake had been made and that there was no crime in video recording the CRASC proceedings.

The Consequences of Power Without Accountability

When Anne Arundel County politicians added “school resource officers” to the County budget in the 2000s, there was no talk of their being used as yet another arrow in the quiver of school administrators to bully parents who challenge their interests.  For example, here is how the police department in 2013 listed the official duties assigned to SROs:

  1. Personal information, including photographs, of students enrolled in a public school.
  2. Providing truancy status to officers encountering school aged children outside the school environment during school hours.
  3. Coordinating with school administration in the event a student must be removed from class for questioning, etc.
  4. Facilitating a private office to investigators who must question students on school grounds.
  5. Providing investigators with intelligence information they have gathered through their daily interaction with students and faculty.

Here is the entire summary of the SRO program in the County Executive’s 444 page long budget from 2001 (p. 278 ):

School Resource Officers – this program works in partnership with the AACo Board of Education. The school resource officers (SRO’s) assist with identifying students at risk for academic failure, truancy, and or involvement in criminal activities.

SROs were never promoted to the community as a general school regulations enforcement tool, let alone one that would be selectively used to bolster the power of administrators against citizens. (Blindly upholding the rule of law regardless of the status of the person involved is a basic prerequisite of justice, so law enforcement should either be used to impartially uphold AACPS regulations or not used at all.) Consider that senior AACPS staff routinely violate their own written rules. Would anyone seriously expect SROs to be employed to enforce such violations by school administrators?

I could list many examples of selective enforcement of their own rules by AACPS staff, including those associated with CRASC. But I will describe just one in some detail here.  When I was chair of the Countywide Citizen Advisory Committee (I became chair when my predecessor resigned), I observed that many of the official public policies concerning the CAC system, which had been established by state law in the early 1970s, were not followed. These were not violations that the CAC representatives from local schools and school clusters were ignorant of. And the violations were not minor; they were gross violations that made a mockery of the written regulations. And the violations implicated not just the CAC (and PTA) leadership but more than a hundred administrators all the way down from the assistant superintendent responsible for overseeing parent participation in the political process to school principals responsible for administering the local CACs in their school building–local staff which obviously knew the rules (after all, the same staff often selectively read the rules to parents and demanded that the rules they cited be followed). I was astounded that the violations had gotten progressively worse over the years and that, at least at the countywide level, no parents had dared to speak up to seek enforcement of the rules (I call it the “Parents’ Kitty Genovese Syndrome,” also known as the Bystander Effect). But it never occurred to me to go to school resource officers to get them to enforce the AACPS regulations.

Eventually, after I repeatedly pointed out these violations in public and surveyed CAC members to document the violations, AACPS was forced to completely rewrite the CAC rules while denying that they had ever been violating them, let alone violating them blatantly and routinely for years (here is a link to the current CAC application form).  Meanwhile, actions to intimidate me were taken by the school board attorney all the way down to the CAC Advisor, who demanded that she observe all my meetings with CAC officers and briefly even refused me access to the email addresses of CAC members (at the time, there were approximately 120 CAC members, one for each AACPS school).

With the CAC, once viewed by the state legislature as a democratic check on a public school system with an all-appointed school board, we see how even blatantly selective enforcement of rules can persist when it is in nobody’s interest to enforce them.  My two recent Washington Post op-eds covered other instances where school board members and AACPS staff chose to ignore written rules when it was politically convenient to do so.

Intimidation and Rule Breaking Go Hand in Hand

I have found that there are three ways AACPS staff will break their own rules. First, as described above in the CAC case, they will ignore explicit rules and insist that parents go along with the rule violation (or expect adverse consequences). Second, they will allow parents to break explicit rules as a perk for supporting them (e.g., see my report, AACPS Thumbs Its Nose on Maryland’s Vague and Meaningless Ban on Using Government Resources for Political Activity.) But most commonly, the rules are written (mostly by administrators and then rubber stamped by the school board) so vaguely and with so many loopholes that administrators can enforce them arbitrarily and capriciously so as to reward friends and punish enemies without actually being in violation of the rules (e.g., see my article, Maxwell’s Political Legacy). Many widely cited “rules” also cannot be found in writing.

The sad truth is that there is nobody credible within AACPS to impartially enforce its own rules. The system has been rigged against students and parents so that the administrators are the only realistic rule enforcers. Lacking meaningful checks & balances, the system is based on the presumption that administrators will act in good faith. But in fact administrators have a blatant conflict of interest in impartially interpreting and applying the rules in the relatively rare (but nevertheless common) situations when it is not in their self interest to do so.  Of course, lip service is an entirely different matter. And of course, too, administrators must preserve plausible deniability (very easy in he-said, she-said situations; the norm in such matters). But these are minor obstacles for street smart administrators, especially those who rise to the top (and the level of smiley-faced ruthlessness rewarded at the top would sometimes make even the House of Cards’ Frank Underwood blush).

In most countries in the world, we would expect powerful public officials to act just like the AACPS staff did. Any type of implied criticism that threatens to be effective is simply not allowed, and any pretext possible will be manufactured and used to shut down people perceived as potential troublemakers. Our national newspapers are full of such incidents regarding reporters and democratic activists in countries such as Russia, Iran, China, Turkey, Venezuela, and Cuba.

For most, it is surprising when such behavior occurs so close to home. Alas, it has proved remarkably easy for certain AACPS staff to intimidate parents, who fear that by being branded a troublemaker their most cherished possession in life, their kids, could suffer retribution as a consequence (given all the ambiguous, secret, and arbitrarily enforced AACPS rules, there are many opportunities for retribution). And it doesn’t only have to do with political power. It includes situations where school-level staff have administered justice arbitrarily and unfairly to students and, like politicians everywhere, would lose face either singly or as a group by acknowledging error.

Recognizing that the system is rigged in favor of local administrators, most loving and politically astute parents fear that publicly calling for justice will make the problem even worse for their children.

It’s very rare, essentially unheard of, for one of these stories to go public. But one AACPS staff “blame-the-victim” incident was covered in the Capital, partly because the Washington Post recognized it was too good a story to let go and featured it on the front page of its Metro section.  After the Washington Post ran the story, the Capital ran a white washed version that gave AACPS the last word.  (Please note that despite the apparent tone of criticism I’m actually sympathetic to Capital education reporters. That is because their job is structured in such a way that they are forced to lick the feet of the AACPS PR officers, who have been granted the power to spoon feed them the access and stories on which their story output and thus livelihood depends.)

As noted in the introduction, an analogy to the incentives for students, parents, press, and others to report abuses may be the decades-long handling of sexual abuse within the Baltimore Archdiocese, including Anne Arundel County.

Alas, democracy requires some civic courage by citizens. AACPS has figured out a way to capitalize on this by intimidating students and parents inclined to exercise such courage relating to certain collective goods (while, of course, adamantly asserting otherwise). Such a culture of intimidation has taken hold of both the Citizen Advisory Committee (intended by the the Maryland General Assembly to represent parents) and CRASC (intended by the Maryland General Assembly to represent students). A system ostensibly designed by legislators to empower parents and students has been so corrupted (notwithstanding abundant lip service to the contrary) as to turn into arguably its opposite.

In a democracy, public officials are supposed to be accountable to the public and not vice versa. But senior AACPS staff have been able to switch the tables because they know they can get away with it. When AACPS staff feel intimidated, we are told loudly and clearly and repeatedly, followed by concrete steps to implement enhanced due process to protect them. But when staff do the intimidating, there is a deafening silence born of student and parental fear.

On The Plurality Rule Used to Elect the SMOB

As for the SMOB election on April 15, just because it was relatively visible compared to the rest of the electoral process doesn’t mean that that’s where the key electoral decisions were made.  I touch on this in my April 19, Washington Post op-ed, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan should veto the Anne Arundel student nomination.

The feature of the final SMOB election that I find most troublesome—other than the general lack of transparency compared to the nominating commission for adults—is that there are three nominees without a runoff.  The result is that a nominee can win with as little as 34% of the vote.  CRASC doesn’t release election results, so it’s not clear how often a winner gets less than 50% of the vote. Ironically, whereas the adult school board nominating commission has required a supermajority to elect candidates, CRASC has moved in the opposite direction, allowing a small minority to elect the SMOB.

This voting rule also has implications for the nominating commission’s power because it makes it much easier for the commission to engage in strategic manipulation of the final result. For example, all it has to do is pick two nominees who are close substitutes for each other (e.g., a male and female who would appeal to a similar demographic from different school feeder systems) to ensure that a third nominee wins. Again, the primary power of the nominating commission is to veto students that AACPS staff oppose.  But it’s a nice kicker that if the commission chooses to act strategically it can unduly influence which of the final three nominated students is ultimately elected. Of course, the logic of such strategic behavior is Politics 101 for the adults closely involved with the process. But the general public has no idea–and the adults like to keep it that way.

Democratic Accountability vs. Student Privacy

AACPS officials rightly seek to protect student privacy. But there is always a balancing act between privacy and public accountability. With regard to student elections for SMOB, this balance has become out of whack.

In my judgment, AACPS staff have taken to using student privacy as an excuse and club to avoid public accountability for misusing government resources for political purposes.  Elections are the most sacred of our democratic institutions. If students want the full powers of adult members of the AACPS Board of Education, they also need to accept adult-like accountability for their actions with respect to electing those members.  Anything less invites abuse.

The commission for nominating adults to the Board of Education is no model of electoral transparency. But compared to the system for nominating students to the Board of Education, it is such a model. Our County would do well to use that as a starting point to evaluate the current SMOB electoral process. There are sound reasons why we generally expect and require transparency around our election processes. We should consider carefully the extent to which we want to continue to grant an exemption for AACPS staff–usually justified in the name of student privacy–with regard to the SMOB election.

More generally, the SMOB election process is arguably the least transparent formal electoral process of the more than 500,000 elected offices in the United States. Given that AACPS is one of the largest local government units in the U.S. (for example, AACPS is approximately the 42nd largest by student enrollment of more than 14,000 public school systems in the United States), that’s a situation that should be a source of shame among our state legislators who created the process and effectively delegated the key electoral decisions to AACPS staff without any of the checks & balances we normally take for granted in our electoral processes.

More than a hundred years ago relatively non-transparent and easy to corrupt electoral systems were widespread in America.  But we eventually learned how to design electoral systems with a much higher degree of electoral integrity. We should do so here, too.

Framing of the Issue

Politics is neither about truth nor the upholding of law. It is about power. To expect our General Assembly, County Council, or Board of Education members to speak out against AACPS’s intimidation machine and rule violations, including CRASC’s violation of its own Constitution, without any prospect of reward from our boosterish local monopoly press has time and time again proven unrealistic.

However, should the observations here of undue AACPS staff influence over the SMOB nomination process ever become politically inescapable (an unlikely outcome, to be sure), AACPS staff will have a strong incentive to go along with politicians’ efforts to blame the students for any deficiencies in the SMOB electoral process. The political advantage of this strategy for the staff is that it can be used to deflect public attention from their own actions.

Politicians of both political parties will also have a strong incentive to blame the students because that is the politically weakest target for them, and it is always smart politics to go after the politically weakest plausible target. Our feckless local newspaper will probably go along with this framing, partly because its economic incentive as a monopoly local newspaper is to side with the strong against the weak (its unofficial motto: “with fear and favor”).

In my judgment, this is the wrong framing. The focus should be on reducing corruption in both the student and adult school board member nominating processes. Both processes have been corrupted in recent years. Surely, the veto power that AACPS staff have had in recent years on the nomination of adult school board members–while unreported in the press–is as corrupt as the influence the staff have had on the SMOB nominations.

Conclusion: The Evolution of the SMOB Election Process

I’ve had two children who were appointed SMOB and another who also ran for the position despite the superintendent’s expected opposition. I believe that my two children who served as SMOB in the late 2000s were the last two SMOBs who tended to vote against the superintendent compared to the adult board members (e.g., see In Arundel Boardroom, Student Has True Clout). For example, one of my children voted with the minority in the back room against the initial hiring of the superintendent (the school board votes on which superintendent to hire).  And after he was hired, my second child refused to be a rubber stamp (which led him to detest her). In recent years, it hasn’t been possible for such independent-minded students to be elected SMOB.

It was that superintendent who set in motion the transformation of CRASC (part of a general concentration of power, including the CAC changes mentioned above) that turned it into the top-down organization that it has become. After the changes were in place, the superintendent argued it was his First Amendment right of free speech to express his views on which SMOB candidates he supported. When that superintendent left to become superintendent of a larger neighboring county, his protege was appointed superintendent. Under his watch, the new, unreported SMOB nominating commission structure was proposed in Fall Semester 2014 and first implement in Spring Semester 2016.

AACPS’s political leaders routinely claim to have taken politics out of the political process. But it is impossible to take politics out of the political process. The concentration of power in our public schools among the very individuals and groups who have denounced politics in those schools–as well as the techniques of intimidation they have used to consolidate their power– is our County’s great unreported story. Reversing that concentration of power in the SMOB election would be a good place to start. Alas, if past is prologue, that’s very unlikely to happen.

The Formula for Corruption: Concentrated Power + Secrecy = Corruption

For other relevant posts: