As the new president of the Harford County School Board, Rick Grambo heads a nine-member body that oversees a nearly half billion dollar budget, not to mention the education of 38,000 students. Despite that eye-popping responsibility, the school board’s power is limited, in ways that Grambo says he sometimes doesn’t like, and in ways the public may not always understand.
Seeking an overview of the school board’s duties in general, and to get to know its new president in particular, The Dagger sat down with Board President Grambo in early November to get his perspective on the school board in the state’s eighth largest school district.
Rick Grambo, 45, was elected to the board representing his North Harford district in 2010, in the first wave of school board elections after state legislation changed the board composition to a mix of elected and appointed members. Grambo’s fellow board members elected him president in October, following the unexpected death of Board President Leonard Wheeler.
Grambo said he hopes to bring together different perspectives and set a good example of the hybrid board, which is a rarity in Maryland. He said he feels accountable to the public, and at the same time, committed to the proper functioning of the school system. Balancing the two objectives can sometimes take work, he said.
After graduating from Fallston High School, Grambo spent a brief time at a four year college, and then enrolled in an electrical apprenticeship program held at Harford Community College. He later became a master commercial electrician and was hired by Pritchard Brown, a Baltimore manufacturer of enclosures for power generation equipment, where he is now a vice-president for sales and engineering. Grambo has also been on the instructional side of education, as a teacher in the Association of Builders and Contractors apprenticeship program in Baltimore County. Grambo says he knows from personal experience that a four year college degree is not the only path to career success.
Before he joined the board, Grambo’s community involvement included his role as a local coordinator for the Campaign for Liberty (C4L), the political advocacy group founded by U.S. Rep. Ron Paul.
Grambo says he’s not an agent of C4L on the school board, but the values of freedom and personal responsibility that led him to the group remain at his core. Those values are reflected in his support for parental rights and school choice. “A big part of the success of students is the parents,” Grambo said, and their involvement should be encouraged, including the right to raise their children and make choices about school. “I applaud home school and private school”, he said, and those choices should be made easier for parents.
As a parent, Grambo and his wife chose Harford County Public Schools for their two boys, Ethan and Wyatt. “I want public school to succeed” he said.
What’s the biggest public misperception about the board? “If there’s an injustice, that we can snap our fingers and turn it around,” Grambo said. Even if one member agrees there’s a problem, Grambo said, they can’t take action independently of the others, and the board can’t act as a body unless the problem falls within its purview.
A case in point: When school days were lost to a hurricane early last school year, they were made up with added days in June, cutting into summer vacation. Grambo not only heard reaction from a frustrated public, but he also had to answer to his wife Jennifer, who wanted to know why the school board couldn’t simply waive the extra days. Grambo explained that the state requires 180 days of school for students, and only the state can grant a waiver. *
That’s not to discourage the public from contacting board members when there’s a problem, Grambo said. Members can gather information from the public, ask questions of senior staff and decide as a group to make policy changes, or otherwise act within the limits of state and federal rules.
Personally, Grambo would prefer more local control of schools. “Federal and state governments have their claws into the school system much deeper than I expected,” he said. The effect is to create “layers between the board and positive change.” As for the federal department of education, “I’d close it tomorrow,” Grambo said, “because they’re in the way.”
Despite his personal views, Grambo is unequivocal about acting within the laws that define board responsibilities, and says he means to do a good job as board president inside those boundaries.
School Leadership: The School Board and the Superintendent
Among the school board’s primary duties are the adoption of the annual operating and capital budgets and approval of local curriculum and education policies. Student discipline, the dress code, school attendance areas, and the beginning and dismissal times for school are examples of areas covered by board policy. The complete board policy manual can be found here.
And while the board engages in labor negotiations with employee unions, it hires and evaluates just one employee: the superintendent.
Superintendent Robert Tomback is responsible for the day to day administration and operation of the schools. Undermining his authority would create dysfunction in the school leadership, Grambo said, making it difficult for the superintendent to do his job, and for the school system to attract and keep good employees. The superintendent must also carry out federal and state mandates. That doesn’t mean that Tomback always agrees with the mandates, Grambo said, but “it means he’s doing his job.”
Superintendent Tomback’s contract ends in June, and the school board will soon decide whether to renew his contract for another four years. Grambo said he welcomes input from the public and school staff as the board prepares its evaluation process, but the process itself has not yet been set. As for the perception in years past that the school board has been a rubber stamp for the superintendent, Grambo said the superintendent has influence and trusting him is essential, but board members also do their own homework. “Harford County can be reassured that we are trusting but verifying,” Grambo said.
Each year, the schools’ capital and operating budgets are proposed by the superintendent and presented to the school board for approval. Before it’s adopted, the board may amend the budget, which is presented as a request to state and county funding authorities. When funding falls short of the requested amount, as it often does, the board decides where to cut.
Last year, the board cut teaching positions to fund the first salary increase for HCPS employees in four years. This year and beyond, Grambo wonders where the money will come from to fund salary increases and build schools. “I want to reward employees,” Grambo said, “but you have to make sure you do it without destroying the financial health of the school system.” Grambo favors merit raises. “We do that all the time in private industry,” he said.
School construction is also a major expense, Grambo said, and providing safe infrastructure for students and staff will be a challenge. He would like for school buildings to be more easily modified in the future, and to last more than the current 50 years.
Maryland is one of 45 states that have adopted the national “Common Core” standards, leading to mandated new curricula in math and English set to hit classrooms statewide next year. The standards are intended to be rigorous, and an effort to better prepare students for college and the workforce. Grambo said he doesn’t favor the change because parental input is reduced; he can’t verify that the Common Core is indeed more rigorous, and “it won’t be cheap to implement.” Students in Harford County Public Schools are already high achieving, he said, and the challenge will be to maintain and improve student achievement, and parent satisfaction with the schools. When it comes to controversial subjects such as sex education, Grambo believes that parents should be more involved and allowed to opt in, rather than required to opt out.
Although they receive a small stipend to cover expenses, school board members in Harford County are not otherwise paid for their service. Board presidents past and present say that the top post can consume up to 30 volunteer hours per week.
In addition to general board member duties, the primary role of the school board president is to manage the meetings. Public business meetings are typically held on the second and fourth Monday of each month, where board discussion and votes are conducted; presentations are made by senior staff, and time is set aside for public comment and a report from the superintendent.
While past board presidents have set the agendas in collaboration with the superintendent, Grambo said he favors greater involvement from other board members and the public. “I’m not going to control the agenda”, he said, adding that anyone can suggest topics for his review. Nor does he seek to impose his will, “I think it’s important that all of the opinions are part of the decisions”.
As president, Grambo said “My goal is to take what we have and make it better, with increased public involvement”. As an example, he said, Board President Wheeler had asked members to sit on school system committees that deal with topics such as the budget and curriculum. To shed more light on the inner workings of the school system, Grambo has asked board members to share the work of those committees during the board comment period at each meeting. Grambo was also at the helm when the board unexpectedly delayed two recent, high profile votes – on a school modernization for Havre de Grace High and the board’s legislative platform for 2013 – in both cases to allow for greater public input and board review.
What can the school board do better? “Increase public involvement and the flow of information from the pubic to the board,” Grambo said. “I want the people most affected by decisions to have the most input. That’s what local government is all about.” He also wants the public to know that when they make public comments at a meeting, the “stone faces” they may see from board members are not for lack of listening. Board members will take the information presented and follow up with staff. Making moves on the school board takes time he said, “It’s like steering a ship.”
* Extra school days are built into each HCPS calendar to offset weather-related closings, but Grambo said that not enough extra days were built into last year’s calendar to account for the hurricane. In response, he said a total of eight additional days have been added to the school calendar for this year.