In a self-serving act of eyebrow-raising proportions, the Harford County Board of Education is seeking to thwart school board elections as part of its legislative platform for the upcoming General Assembly session.
Despite the fact that most school board members in Maryland and 95% of boards across the country are elected, the Harford school board is fighting to remain one of the few appointed by the governor and thus insulated from the public it serves. The board contends that elections would inject politics into the process. So elections are political, but political appointments are not political? Please.
Then what do you call it when unknown supporters give a quiet nod to select individuals who are granted power to set public policy and dispense public funds without the approval of the public?
Whatever it is, it prompted legislation during the 2007 session of the General Assembly to bring the lowly voter back into the mix. House Bill 730 would have established a blended school board, composed of elected and appointed members.
But the local school board resisted. Board members lobbied community groups and testified against HB 730, helping to kill the bill in committee while keeping it from going to a vote on the house floor. Setting aside the obvious danger of letting public servants decide whether they will or will not face the voters, it’s worth noting that the board’s argument boiled down to an indictment of democracy per se. As if we hadn’t settled all that back in 1776.
To be fair, the board is not completely opposed to public involvement in the selection process, as long as the public is not doing the actual selecting. The board supports a kind of “democracy-lite” wherein select citizens cast a vote for the candidate they would like the governor to appoint. But we’ve been down this road before.
For years, prospective school board members were interviewed by delegates to a Permanent Nominating Caucus (PNC). After reviewing the candidates, the delegates to the caucus would vote for nominees to recommend to the governor, although the governor was under no obligation to act. And sure enough, several PNC nominees were passed over in favor of political appointments that left the general public out in the cold.
The PNC had other problems as well. PNC delegates were limited in number and required to be representatives of an established community group. Delegates were required to attend both a candidates’ forum and a voting convention to cast a ballot which resulted in nothing more than a suggestion to the governor. So it’s no surprise that the PNC disbanded in 2006. The board’s idea is to bring it back.
But why stop with the board of education? If the board doesn’t trust the voters and prefers instead to be selected by a PNC, maybe we ought to give other leaders the same option. Perhaps we have no business voting for our own county executive, county council, governor or president either. Fortunately, “We the people” don’t let our representatives opt out of democracy. The members of the board of education should be no exception.
All citizens have a vested interest in a successful public education system. The board of education sets policy and approves curriculum affecting 40,000 public school students in our community and directs a budget funded entirely by taxpayers. Nearly half of the taxes collected by Harford County Government go to fund Harford County Public Schools.
But when the new General Assembly session gets underway, the Harford board of education will be battling to prevent the people who pay those taxes from choosing their representatives. If you hadn’t known the meaning of the word “chutzpah” before, now you do.