The Harford County Board of Education serves nearly 40,000 of the county’s youngest citizens, managing of one of the largest public school systems in the nation. Board members hire the superintendent, set local education policy and establish local curriculum, among other duties. In dollar terms, each year the Harford School Board oversees nearly half a billion dollars in operating funds and millions more for school facilities. Now, for the first time in Harford County, some members of the school board will also be elected by the public they serve.
State legislation passed in 2009 with unanimous support from the Harford Delegation will expand the Harford School Board to nine members, and create a blended board comprised of one elected member from each of the six councilmanic districts and three members appointed at-large.
Blended school boards are rare, and this one was an effort at compromise between the popular support for school board elections and the small, but powerful group of opponents who wanted to keep a fully appointed board. That, along with the usual complications that come with any transition, makes the process worthy of an overview.
The following FAQ’s are offered as a guide through the transition that is about to begin, combined with an unabashed call for good candidates to run for the elected positions.
How were the current school board members selected?
The Governor of Maryland appointed all seven members of the Harford County Board of Education. Board members represent different geographic areas of the county, but they do not have to live in the district they represent.
When will the change to the new blended board begin?
Sometime in 2010, Governor Martin O’Malley is expected to make two appointments to the school board, expanding the board to nine members.
Sometime between now and 90 days after the November, 2010 election, the Governor will make a third appointment to fill the expiring term of one current board member.
Combined, these actions will create the three appointed positions on the blended board. The three newly appointed members will begin their four-year terms on July 1, 2011.
When do elections begin?
This fall, the first set of school board elections will be held for three of the six Harford councilmanic districts: District A (Edgewood/Joppa), District B (Fallston/Abingdon) and District D (North Harford).
Candidates must live in the district they represent and they will be elected by the residents of that district only. Elected terms are also for four years.
Elections in the remaining districts, District C (Bel Air), E (Aberdeen), and F (Havre de Grace) begin in 2014.
School board elections are nonpartisan by state law, so unlike most elections, federal employees are generally eligible to run for the school board.
Teachers and other HCPS employees cannot run for the board until they are retired or employed elsewhere.
Board members are expected to support public education, but it’s not necessary for board candidates to have children in public school. Effective board members come from all walks of life; retirees, educators, business people, professionals, PTA members, community activists – anyone with a true interest in education, an open mind and good decision-making skills can make a solid candidate.
Training is provided for school board members and board members are generally reimbursed $3,600 per year for board-related expenses.
Elected school board members in Maryland are usually paid a salary, but not yet in Harford County. Advocates for school board elections (myself included) will be back next legislative session and for as long as it takes, fighting for school board members to be paid to do what is arguably one of the most important jobs in the county. But board service is not a road to riches. Compensation in the largest Maryland counties ranges from around $10,000 to $20,000 per year.
Nationally, school board campaigns are typically low key and low cost. PTA and other community meetings; social networking sites like Facebook; and coverage from local media like The Dagger, can all connect the candidates to the public.
School board candidates must be registered to vote in the county for 3 years prior to the term of office, and meet the general requirements for political office. More information can be found here on the board of elections Web site.
The deadline to file as a candidate for the November election is July 6, 2010 at 9 p.m. All candidates will be on the ballot in the primary. Voters who are unaffiliated with a political party will be allowed to vote in the September 14 primary for school board members only.
The top two vote-getters in the primary will face off on November 2 in the general election.
The newly elected members will also have plenty of time to get up to speed on school board matters – they, along with the newly appointed board members, will not be seated until July 1, 2011. At that time, the nine-member board will consist of three elected members, and six appointed members.
The blended board legislation doesn’t precisely name the first three board members whose seats will become elected, nor does it name the one board member whose seat will remain appointed. But a clarifying opinion from the Maryland Attorney General combined with the language of the legislation indicate that the board members elected in 2010 will fill seats currently held by John Smilko of Joppatowne, Tom Evans of Fallston, and either Robin Rich of North Harford or Mark Wolkow of Abingdon. The choice between Rich and Wolkow is, by law, up to the Governor.
The AG opinion also indicates that the seat currently held by Board Member Don Osman of Havre de Grace will become one of the three appointed seats on the blended board. Osman is eligible to be reappointed, as are Tom Evans and John Smilko, although Smilko has indicated he will not return to the board.
Fast Forward to 2014:
After the changes in 2011, the composition of the board will remain unchanged until 2014, when elections will be held in the three remaining councilmanic districts to fill the expiring terms of three more members from the original, fully appointed board – Leonard Wheeler of Forest Hill (representing Aberdeen); Alysson Krchnavy of Bel Air; and either Robin Rich or Mark Wolkow, depending on the Governor’s earlier decision.
Also in 2014, the terms of the first elected members from back in 2010 will be up and elections in those districts will be held again. Elections will be held every four years thereafter in all six Harford councilmanic districts.
The three appointed members will also continue to be appointed by the Governor and serve on the same four-year cycle as elected members. Appointed school board members are intended by law to ensure gender, ethnic and racial diversity.
Finally, on July 1, 2015 the new nine-member board will be seated and the transition will be complete, with three members appointed by the Governor and six members elected in-district.
A Potential Glitch:
Sometimes, school board members decide not to serve out their full terms. Under the blended board legislation, the remaining terms of appointed members will be filled by appointment from the Governor, same as always. If an elected member leaves early, the Harford County Council will make the pick.
The blended legislation also amended the terms of several board members to accommodate the transition from appointed to elected seats. One such amendment extended the term of Board Member John Smilko. But Smilko is leaving early (or on time under the old rules) and the Governor will now have to choose a replacement to serve out the last year of the Joppa resident’s extended term. With two candidates already filed to run for the Joppa/Edgewood seat, the Governor could pick a neutral placeholder. But he is also free to pick a favorite among the candidates, giving the advantage of incumbency to one.
The Bottom Line:
For sure, it would have been simpler to end the terms of the current board members and elect an entirely new board all at once. Instead, the extended transition was planned to minimize the impact on the current board. The bottom line is that once the transition is complete, board selection will be mostly done out in the open and the public will finally have a voice.
But public involvement in public education doesn’t end with school board elections – elections are only the beginning.
Whether or not you have children in school, you can’t live a day in Harford County without interacting with a graduate of Harford County Public Schools. The community we are, and community will be, rests on the quality of education we provide to our young citizens. For the first time, the public will decide who will lead our public school system from good to great. For the first time, the opportunity to lead our public schools will be open to all. For qualified candidates, now is the time to answer the call.