Part-elected school board a step back
That was July 7, 1984.
Over the past 30 years, many bills have been introduced in Annapolis for a whole or partially elected school board. But after much public controversy, they have been defeated. This year, however, looms as different.
With virtually no public awareness, the city delegation to the House unanimously approved
Why this shift in the political winds? The principal reason is the widespread public view, shared by many
An elected school board has powerful political appeal. Given the never-ending problems in city schools, there doesn't seem to be much to lose. And most school boards nationwide and in Maryland are elected.
But what seems good in theory has worked badly in practice. According to University of Memphis researcher Thomas E. Glass, elected urban school boards by and large “are not accountable to the public, seemingly possess modest skills, [and] are very conflict-prone [and] politicized.” Elections are marred by low voter turnout, dominance by teachers unions and self-interest politics. The trend in urban districts nationally has been away from elected boards and toward more mayoral control.
The arguments against a partially or wholly elected school board have carried the day, so far. Baltimore school boards have been criticized from time to time, but overall they have earned public trust. Several years ago, the city board was recognized by the National School Board Association as “one of the most successful governing bodies in American education today.”
This trust, unfortunately, has been shattered over the past 18 months. Since last spring, community sentiment — shared privately by a majority of board members — is that the board erred in the selection of the current schools CEO, Gregory Thornton, who took office in July 2014. His strengths simply don't align with the paramount need for strong instructional leadership. Yet, the board has failed to act to bring about stronger leadership.
Still, hard cases make bad law. The current board's inaction should not overcome the overwhelming likelihood that even a partially elected school board would make things worse.
Supporters of the current bill respond that the nine appointed members will greatly outnumber the elected members, so what's the danger in that? First, the elections, even if put off until 2020 as the amended bill provides, would divert public attention immediately from crucial policy issues to contentious politicking. There is no time or margin for the school system to further delay coming out of its current nose dive. And even a small number of elected members would be a dangerous foot in the schoolhouse door.
Moreover, there are better approaches. Two other bills pending in Annapolis would give the mayor the sole appointment power. At present, the governor and mayor co-appoint.
A bolder step would be to abolish the school board entirely. Mayors should be held as directly accountable for schools as for police, fire, public works and other departments. With their necks directly on the line, mayors will be more prone to provide more resources to the schools.
Of course mayors can falter too. There are no cure-alls. But a recent national report stated that mayoral control was associated with significant improvements. Most important, the public knows whom to hold accountable when progress doesn't occur.
A partially elected school board will be a step backward from such accountability, along with the other risks it entails. It is not too late for stakeholders in the city system to make their voices heard in Annapolis. And the current school board could help too by taking action to restore public trust in its stewardship.