Take a wild guess – throw a dart with a blindfold on – and you might divine that I’m not a big fan of establishment politics. Nor am I big on PR stunts. The problem with PR stunts is they are inherently deceptive. The stuntmen and stunt women want us to believe what we’re seeing is real. The problem with establishment politics is that society’s pressing need – “the children,” for instance – always ends up playing second fiddle to flaccid businessmen and guileful dealmakers.
PR stunts and establishment politics go hand in hand. One such stunt, designed to protect the status quo against what has become a groundswell of support for an elected school board in Harford County, played out in Annapolis Wednesday.
Del. Mary-Dulany James (D-District 34) considers herself a stalwart of the community’s educational institutions. She has every right to. Not just because her father helped found Harford Community College, but because she’s been a voice of reason during heated education debates past – and because she’s been a defender of the liberal bastion of education in the conservative bastion of Harford’s suburban farm country.
But in her fervor to keep Harford’s school board out of electoral politics, James is pulling a bit of a PR stunt.
James, along with Del. B. Dan “Arm Every Man, Woman, and Child” Riley (D-District 34), is the author of House Bill 806 (http://mlis.state.md.us/2008RS/bills/hb/hb0806f.pdf), which would preserve the status quo for how school board members are appointed. It would resuscitate and enshrine the Permanent Nominating Caucus, a depressing and spectacularly failed committee of citizens with supposed input into school board appointments. I covered the PNC in its sad twilight. Knowing then-Gov. Ehrlich and man-wonder County Exec Harkins were going to flatly ignore its reasoned recommendations, the PNC had become little more than a few housewives at a PTA meeting no one bothered to show up for – except for a local reporter, who’d been sent on yet another lame mission.
James’ refurbished PNC would include representatives from the Harford Business Roundtable for Education, a Chamber of Commerce-like business group (http://www.hcps.org/Departments/PublicInformation/HCPS_Newspaper/Archive/2003-04/June2003-04.pdf) that supports education in the county. HBRT submitted written testimony in Annapolis opposing an elected school board last year.
On Wednesday, HBRT testified against Sen. Barry Glassman’s bill to create a fully elected school board. They’ll likely testify in support of James’ bill at a hearing Feb. 27. In a January 25 letter to James, HBRT president Richard Bock, owner of Huntington Learning Center in Bel Air, noted, “Having been close observers of the Board for many years, we believe the appointment system has given us a stronger Board than we have ever had.”
Bock continued: “In the past year or so, there have been many voices calling for change. As we understand it the call for change arises from the concern, real or perceived, that the Board members must be ‘more accountable’ and should not be political appointees of the Governor. We strongly agree with the second point but question what ‘accountability’ means. Too often we fear it means, ‘You did not do what I want’.”
What neither Bock nor James have stated clearly, however, is the fact that the board has repeatedly done what HBRT members J. Vinton Schafer & Sons, Frederick Ward Associates, and Edmeades & Stromdahl wanted. All have large, board-approved contracts with Harford County Public Schools (http://www.hcps.org/departments/docs/operations/planningandconstruction/ConstructionStatusApril07.pdf). Glassman made mention during his hearing Wednesday of business ties between a group listed in the James bill (ostensibly HBRT) and the school system, according to a Dagger citizen report. HBRT president Bock retorted that “very few” HBRT members do business with the school system.
James’ bill would require the governor to honor one of the reformed PNC’s picks, which would mean the group couldn’t be completely ignored – a clear improvement over the old setup. Still, the governor would have the power to reject several nominees before selecting one. Thus, if the Gov has a mind to promote loyal central committee members and party stalwarts, like Ehrlich and Harkins did, the same-old-same-old could still prevail. Plus, look at the makeup of the school board, past and present. The mix of blowhards and brave minds, of down to earth PTA types and the politically ambitious has been analogous to, say, the Harford County delegation to Annapolis.
In its 2007 written testimony opposing an elected school board, HBRT sang: “Accountability is something we should expect from all public officials. But accountability should not be measured by their inability to make every small interest group happy.” No, every small interest group doesn’t need to be happy. So long as the big ones are.