In the next few days, Governor O’Malley will reappoint two incumbents, Andrew C. Pruski (Board President) and Teresa Milio Birge (Board Vice President), to the Anne Arundel County Public School System (AACPS) Board of Education.  One can make this prediction with absolute certainty not because the Governor has already announced his appointments (which he is supposed to do by July 1, 2013, the start of the next school board term) but because he has no other choice.  The Anne Arundel County School Board Nominating Commission (SBNC) may have a statutory obligation to submit two names for each open seat to the Governor.  But according to the SBNC’s interpretation of the law, that only applies if at least two candidates apply for each seat.  If the SBNC makes no effort to publicize the open seats and only the incumbents apply, it only has to send to the Governor the name of one individual for each open seat.

When Maryland’s General Assembly created the current school board nominating system in 2007, this wasn’t the way it was supposed to work.  Indeed, during the first nominating round in 2008, the SBNC widely promoted the fact that more than 20 individuals submitted applications to be nominated.  But this year the underlying logic of the new electoral system became clear: if an incumbent doesn’t rock the boat or publicly demonstrate moral turpitude, he can expect smooth sailing through to reappointment; no challengers need apply.

Why the SBNC even bothered to hold public hearings on May 29 and May 30 is baffling to me.  Incumbents don’t need to go through the SBNC nominating process.  According to a ruling by Maryland’s attorney general, they are automatically nominated for a second five year term (and possibly a third five year term if their first term was as a replacement for another school board member, such as Board President Tricia Johnson who ran for higher office in 2009 and was replaced by current Board President Pruski).  But the statute creating the SBNC mandates it convene two public hearings to interview the candidates, even if, unlike what the authors of the statute anticipated, there are no challengers.  Rather than convene and then immediately adjourn the public hearings, the SBNC went through the motions of holding a real public hearing.

The May 29 Public Hearing

I attended the first public hearing, and I was the only member of the public present in the audience other than school employees and the SBNC’s taxpayer funded legal counsel.  Only 8 of the 11 SBNC members even bothered to show up.  It was a lovefest between the candidates and the SBNC, with the candidates renewing their vows to uphold the interests of the school system employees, the kids, and the taxpayers—and with no hint that there might be a conflict among these goals.

After the hearing, I walked over to the SBNC Chair and asked him to republish on the SBNC’s website the prior applications of the two incumbents.  It seemed to me that the promises contained in those applications would be worthless if the public couldn’t see them.   The Chair said he’d send them the following day to the AACPS Public Information Officer who maintains the SBNC website.   I also asked the Chair to make accessible online the TV broadcasts of the SBNC hearings (a request I’ve made to him many times in previous years), and he said he’d pass that request along, too (much like YouTube, AACPS has the ability to post TV coverage online at the flick of a button).  The Public Information Officer who was standing nearby and managed the three man crew who recorded the hearing, then reported to me that whether or not he publishes the information on the SBNC website was purely a matter for him to decide.

It’s now exactly a month later and the requested information has not been posted on the SBNC website.

In my opinion, allowing school board members to control their public campaign records is a blatant conflict of interest and thus poor institutional design.   It may not be in their self-interest to make such information readily available, but it is in the public’s interest.

The May 30 Public Hearing

At the May 30 hearing for public comments on the candidates, the only members of the public to show up were a designated witness for each of the two incumbent school board candidates.  My favorite moment of the hearing, which lasted all of seventeen minutes, was when the Chair, with a hint of a smile, asked if any members of the audience would like to comment, when no members of the audience could have spoken because there were none.  (I watched the brief second hearing from home and from a reaction shot of the candidates determined that the audience was empty; however, it’s possible that a member of the public in the audience was out of camera range).

After the public testimony, the SBNC held a vote for each candidate, which was 8-0 in favor of each.  Again, only 8 of the 11 SBNC members even bothered to attend.  Under SBNC rules (and good luck if you can find this particular one), a supermajority of 8 members is required to nominate candidates to the Governor, so no nomination would have been valid if fewer than 8 members had attended or there hadn’t been a unanimous vote.  Why the SBNC even bothered to vote is unclear, since by law incumbents are automatically nominated to the Governor for an additional term.

Softball vs. Hardball Questions

Of course, it wasn’t for me to ask any questions of the candidates.  But if I had been asked, these are the questions I would have asked Board President Pruski.  They are the types of questions that might have been asked in a conventional, contested election rather than the SBNC’s election by acclaim.  Note that none of my questions should imply that Board President Pruski isn’t hard working, personable, extremely knowledgeable, and abundantly intelligent, which, for the record, I believe he is.

  1. In response to a petition by more than 3,000 Anne Arundel County parents, the school board spent about $40,000 worth of staff time to write a report on the pros and cons of later high school start times.  The clear intent of the report was to demonstrate that later high school start times would be prohibitively costly.  When you presented the report to the school system’s parent advisory body, you said it was vital to consider all the things that would have to be given up for later high school start times, such as school maintenance, special education, and a new high school for Severna Park.  But you just approved contracts with increases for school system employees that amounted to tens of millions of dollars, plus other significant changes such as a shorter work year, without any public debate, let alone issuing any such report or asking parents what they would be willing to give up (such as textbooks and school supplies) to fund the contract.  How can you justify this apparent procedural double standard?
  2. In the press release announcing the new contract, there is no mention of the fact that the work year was reduced by one duty day next year (plus additional leave under contingent circumstances).  You also didn’t adjust the reported increase in compensation by the shortened work year.  How do you justify such omissions?
  3. Perhaps no one affiliated with AAPCS has publicly talked more about their commitment to public participation than you.   But while you have been on the Board of Education both the CAC (the parents’ representative body) and CRASC (the students’ representative body) have shifted from bottom-up to top-down control.   The SBNC’s communications/PR has also been tightly controlled by the school board, with public participation in its proceedings at an all-time low.  How do you explain this discrepancy?
  4. You have stated that, unlike other legislators, school board members should not micromanage and that therefore their primary duty is to hire the superintendent and let him manage.  How would you go about hiring a new superintendent?
  5. Could you explain the circumstances in which your wife, a teacher in a neighboring public school district, was hired to work as an assistant principal in Anne Arundel County?  Did you discuss her promotion with Superintendent Kevin Maxwell or any other school staff?  Did you recuse yourself when voting for her appointment as part of a consent agenda?  Prior to approving her hiring, should you have sought an opinion from the Board of Education’s Ethics Committee?
  6. The law stipulates that the compensation of public employees, which constitutes 82% of AACPS’s budget, is a public record.  Many people who have control of such information believe that is a bad law and that if it cannot be changed it can at least be made as difficult and intimidating as possible for the public to access such information.  Clearly, this is an emotionally fraught and difficult issue.  Where do you stand on it?  How do you explain a top teacher salary of $130,000/year, excluding benefits and pension?  Why has this never been publicly reported?
  7. Is it appropriate for the Public Information Office to promote your appearances in the community during an election year?  Is this publicity service equally available to all school board members and during both election and non-election years?
  8. As you know, when Cathy Vitale was a county councilor and had a husband who worked for the County, she frequently sought independent ethics opinions and recused herself from votes concerning her husband’s interests.  Should the four school board members with spouses or children working for the school system do the same?  Is the Board of Education’s Ethics Committee broken in terms of dealing with conflicts of interest by members of the Board of Education?
  9. To what extent should the AACPS staff’s involvement in the recruitment of school board candidates, in the selection of a student member of the school board, and in lobbying, including the recruitment of parent lobbyists on behalf of the school system, be publicly disclosed?  Should there be some formal, independent mechanism for public disclosure so the public has a way to verify staff claims?  Should staff whistleblowers be provided with any protections?
  10. Is it proper for the school board to host the SBNC’s candidate hearings, control its publicity, and control its records of proceedings?  On what basis does the school board eliminate public web access but not its own access to the SBNC’s public records?

Source: Snider, J.H., Governor to reappoint two incumbents to AACPS school boardEye On Annapolis, June 29, 2013.