ANNAPOLIS – Worcester County residents digressed into a sharp debate before a house panel Thursday over whether to elect or appoint members of the Board of Education.
That clouded discussion on the pith of the bill, which would send the question of selection of the school board to voters this November.
The bill, sponsored by Delegate K. Bennett Bozman, D-Worcester, is his response to a petition, signed by 4,000 voters in the county, to change the selection of the Board of Education from appointment to election.
Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, has introduced a twin bill in the Senate.
The governor appoints the county’s seven-member Board of Education, along with those of 11 other Maryland jurisdictions.
Bozman had predicted a heated debate, but said the House Commerce and Governmental Matters hearing was not the place.
“The issue here is fairness – get the people the right to make the decision,” he said. “The issue right now is not which way is better or not. Those concerns should be aired at home.”
After seven witnesses, Delegate Barry Glassman, R-Harford, a committee member, reminded participants the purpose of the hearing was to deal with the bill, not the referendum’s outcome.
That didn’t stop election proponents.
“We need to put (board selection) to the people and let the people decide,” said Ocean City Councilman Vince Gisriel Jr.
Representatives from the black community, which is 25 percent of the county’s population, agreed.
“The African-American community has not been represented (on the board) and we feel strongly that (an elected board) opens that door to our participation in education,” said Edward S. Lee, an officer for the Maryland NAACP.
There are two blacks on the county school board.
Others worry a governor-appointed board injects politics into education.
“If the board members are appointed by a governor, who is a Democrat, isn’t that political?” asked Linda Busick, a retired police officer.
Opponents of the bill, however, share a similar fear.
“The Board of Education system is not there to become a soap box for competing ideologies,” said Robert A. Rothermel Jr., owner of a tour agency in Ocean City. An elected board, he warned, would allow members to “micromanage” education with personal agendas.
“My first concern is always what is best for the kids,” said Alfred Harrison, Chairman of Citizens for an Appointed Board of Education. Board members should not have to worry about collecting votes, he said.
There is a trend in the General Assembly of changing Boards of Education in the state from appointed to elected, said Eric Schwartz, deputy executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.
Frederick County is in the process of switching and Calvert and St. Mary’s Counties changed in 1996.
“There is nothing showing that any type is more accountable or more efficient than the other,” he said.
An appointed board offers quality control and ensures equal race and gender representation, something you aren’t guaranteed in an election, Schwartz said.
But both systems have their pitfalls, experts say.
Political aspirants can use the Board of Education as a stepping stone, said Katrina Kelley, director of a National School Boards Association program. But a mayor or governor might have political preferences as well, she said. “If it was as simple as one or the other, then every school system would have one method,” she said. Kelley’s organization found about 83 percent of its 96 urban school boards are elected, she said.
If either bill passes this session, county residents will have the final say in November.
That is how Stoltzfus and Bozman want to leave it.
The rest “is all to be decided later by the people,” said Stoltzfus. An elected board “has two hurdles-and it has passed only one.”