Vanessa Atterbeary is reintroducing a bill that aligns school board districts

Photo via Baltimore Sun
Photo via Baltimore Sun

This is the best article I have read in a while on the Baltimore Sun website. I am excited to hear that Delegate Atterbeary is going to resubmit this bill for consideration. Here is more information from the article:

The structure of Howard County’s school board could change as state lawmakers propose three competing plans to how school board members are elected.

Currently, school board candidates run for seven at-large seats in a non-partisan race, but lawmakers say that system does not do enough to boost accountability, encourage diversity and push board members to respond to concerns within their constituent-base.

State Del. Vanessa Atterbeary is reintroducing a bill that aligns school board districts with councilmanic districts. Five members would be elected by district while the remaining two seats would be at-large positions.

Tying school board seats to council districts ensures board members are beholden to the unique needs of their constituents and gives parents and educators a single point of contact to address concerns, said Atterbeary, a Democrat.

“There is a belief amongst the community that certain schools in the county are treated different,” Atterbeary said. All schools need to be represented equally and fairly and all parents need to feel like they have a voice.”

The bill, which drew support from the community at hearings last year, failed to make it to the General Assembly after state Del. Bob Flanagan and state Sens. Edward Kasemeyer, a Democrat, and Gail Bates voted against the proposal.

Bates and Flanagan, both Republicans, feared the proposal would inject politics into the nonpartisan school board race, and are this year each offering a competing proposal.

“Councilmanic districts are highly partisan and grossly gerrymandered,” Flanagan said. “We do not want to inject partisanship, gerrymandering and all of the related problems into the election of the school board.”

Flanagan’s plan calls for districts drawn by an 11-member commission of citizens selected through a lottery managed by the county executive.

The commission, chaired by a retired judge selected by the Howard County Council and funded by county taxpayer dollars, would create seven school board districts.

Members would draw districts to match the proportion of registered voters by party. All members must be registered voters and cannot serve as public officials in the state.

The county would reimburse commission members for their participation.

Bates’ proposal also creates a commission that would draw districts, but places selection powers in the hands of local organizations and requires citizen input throughout the redrawing process.

“There is no place for politics with the school board,” Bates said.

The Howard County Education Association, the Parent-Teacher Association Council of Howard County and the Howard County Administrators Association would each appoint three members.

Each organization can only appoint one person from each councilmanic district, an effort to screen the body from partisan influence and represent the county’s diversity.

Members of the commission would be barred from seeking public office in the county during their term. Districts would be drawn to evenly distribute populations and ensure high school attendance areas remain in similar zones.

The Howard County state delegation will consider the proposals by January following a public hearing on Dec. 21.

Atterbeary’s proposal would go into effect in 2018 while the other proposals would go into effect in 2022.

This year’s school board race ushered in three new faces — Kirsten Coombs, Mavis Ellis and Christina Delmont-Small — ousting three incumbents. Only one person of color, Mavis Ellis, is represented on the new board, which was sworn in on Dec. 5.

Atterbeary’s proposal drew support from the local teacher’s union and community members, but was hit by criticism from Superintendent Renee Foose and members of the former school board, who expressed concerns about injecting politics into the race.

Flanagan said the current system showed “a clear opportunity to change direction,” but a more targeted model was still warranted.

“We’ve seen some red flags from the school system management. We have a concerning report regarding public information requests. We have serious questions about how public input has been disregarded in making major decisions,” Flanagan said. “People feel that they’re not being heard.”

Moves to repurpose how school board members are elected cropped up nearly four years ago when former State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick sought to create a hybrid model with five members elected by district and two appointed by the county executive. Grasmick posed the recommendation as the head of a commission under then-County Executive Ken Ulman.

Del. Frank Turner, a Columbia Democrat, pushed for Grasmick’s proposal in the 2012 General Assembly, but withdrew the bill after hitting public pushback.

Howard’s school board was appointed by the governor until the 1970s. In 2006, the number of seats grew from five to seven.

Of Maryland’s 24 local school boards, 11 are elected and three are formed by appointments from the governor. The remaining boards are composed of a combination of elected and appointed positions.

The Howard County delegation will hear input on the proposals at its yearly public hearing on all draft state bills on Dec. 21 at 7 p.m. in the George Howard building in Ellicott City.

Note – I “bolded” some items above that are important….here are some of my notes about the article:

  • The proposal would change the 7 At Large seats to 5 seats by district and 2 At Large seats. I love this proposal – it is simple, easy to understand and will provide representation from all over the county. It may also make the pool of candidates larger in the future given that they will not have to run a county wide campaign.
  • State Senators Bates (R) and Kasemeyer (D) as well as Delegate Flanagan (R) all voted against this bill last year. To be honest, Flanagan and Bates were not a surprise (bill introduced by a Democrat that Republicans voted against – no shock at all) but Kasemeyer was the one that really killed this bill a year ago. I still have not heard a good answer to the question of why he “really” voted this down. If you support this bill – be sure to reach out to all three of these elected officials and let them know it…and that we will remember their votes in 2018.
  • The statement “feared the proposal would inject politics into the nonpartisan school board race” is maybe the most ridiculous thing I have ever read. Has he been to a party (either party) event, trailer or tent at an public event. There are regularly “non-partisan” Board of Education candidate signs at those events during election season. Look, want to change things, I want to see a bill making it illegal (or some sort of fine) for having a non-partisan sign at those events supported by local GOP or local Dems. That might be a good first step in making the Board of Education really “non-partisan”. Just my suggestion.
  • Superintendent Renee Foose opposition was no big shock. She seemed to oppose anything that did not keep the status quo with the previous board members. Now that there is a new board that appears to oppose her on many fronts, it will be interesting to see if she changes her tune about these proposals.
  • The Flanagan and Bates proposals are intersting…and complicated and might be a hard sell to the public. Wait, is that why they proposed their plans? Hmm….plus the fact that they don’t go into effect until 2022.
  • Be sure to attend the session on December 21st…it could be a fun one.

As you can probably tell, I HIGHLY support the bill from Delegate Atterbeary and will do my best to advocate for it in the coming months.

Scott E


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