Democrats, Republicans unite against proposal to add two appointed members to Howard County school board

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Dec. 15—Ellicott City resident Danny Mackey never thought he'd see Howard County conservatives and liberals join together in protest, but that is exactly what happened this week, after state Sen. Clarence Lam and Del. Courtney Watson proposed adding two appointed members to the Howard County Board of Education.

As Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." blared and temperatures dipped below freezing, about 40 residents, including former County Executive Allan Kittleman, a Republican, gathered Wednesday outside the George Howard Building in Ellicott City to demonstrate against the bill ahead of a public hearing.

"This idea is so uniquely bad that a community that even four months ago I didn't think would ever be united on an education issue is speaking in unison," said Mackey, 28, who ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2018 and organized the rally.

Democratic County Council members Liz Walsh and Deb Jung joined Republican David Yungmann in arguing that the proposed legislation would dilute the will of voters at a time when most other county boards are elected. Of the 24 Maryland school districts, only Baltimore, Caroline, Harford and Prince George's counties and Baltimore City still use appointed board members, although state lawmakers voted in April to return the Prince George's school board to an all-elected model.

"Government for the people by the people is done through our vote," said Yungmann, who represents District 5. "Despite our occasional disappointment at our fellow citizens and how they might vote, this is the system we've had, and it's worked for a long time."

The Howard school board has seven elected members — two at-large and five representing County Council districts — as well as a student member who votes on all issues except those pertaining to budgets, personnel or other restricted matters.

Lam and Watson announced the bill in a Nov. 15 news release and initially proposed replacing two elected positions with members appointed by the county executive based on recommendations by the state delegation. After weeks of community feedback, the two lawmakers announced several proposed amendments, including adding the two appointed members to the seven existing elected seats, thereby creating a nine-member board.

"This is exactly what a legislator should be doing, which is putting ideas out there, getting feedback, making a bill an iterative process," Watson said Tuesday. "Discussions that we have had have been incredibly engaging."

Rather than the state delegation, a nominating committee composed of "diverse representatives of stakeholder organizations" would provide the county executive with a list of potential appointees, according to the amendments.

The bill's sponsors argued that adding appointed members would "improve the coordination and collaboration" between the board, county executive and state delegation and increase policy expertise while implementing millions of dollars worth of Blueprint for Maryland's Future funding.

Additional amendments included the establishment of a compensation commission to review and recommend salary adjustments for board members and the introduction of legislation to extend the Citizens' Election Fund to board candidates. The fund, which provides matching county dollars to small-scale campaign donations, does not currently apply to school board races.

"There are a lot of people that would like to serve or would be willing to serve on the Board of Education but are not willing to go through a campaign and an election cycle," Watson argued. "This would allow Board of Education membership to be more inclusive."

Following Wednesday's rally, dozens of residents packed the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building to testify during a hearing on local legislation proposed by the Howard County delegation.

Speakers included representatives from the Howard NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Howard County, the Parent-Teacher Association Council of Howard and a number of other community organizations. Nearly all voices opposed adding appointed members to the board in any form.

"I've also been told that this plan will ensure that the board reflects the values of the people of Howard County," testified Columbia resident Julian Levy. "What better way to reflect their values than to have the people of Howard County vote for all of the board members?"

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While the school board voted 5-1-2 on Dec. 5 to symbolically oppose passage of the bill's original version, members signaled in joint testimony to the delegation that they would "revisit the impact of proposed language" in the amendments. Still, board members Linfeng Chen, Yun Lu and Jolene Mosley took to the podium to testify as individuals and urge lawmakers to preserve the nonpartisanship of the school system's governing body.

"I was born and raised in a communist country, where only one voice is allowed and only one party dominates," said Lu, who immigrated to the U.S. from China. "It's important to maintain the independence of the BOE and separate the BOE from the executive and legislative functions of the Howard County government."

Beginning in January, the Howard County delegation will hold weekly public meetings to review all proposed local legislation and make any desired adjustments. If approved by a majority of the delegation's senators and delegates in separate votes, bills will advance to the Maryland General Assembly for further consideration. The delegation has until Feb. 10 to approve any local legislation.

Local bills are typically automatically approved by the assembly as a courtesy, according to Watson, unless they set statewide precedents, in which case they are reviewed by the Ways and Means Committee. Since no other county currently extends its Citizens' Election Fund to the school board, that amendment could trigger such a holdup.

"The state General Assembly can block something if it sets statewide precedent that as a rule they don't like," said Watson, noting that similar local election fund bills had failed several times before.

Mackey said he believes many voters on both sides of the aisle would support the bill amendments to increase board pay and expand public campaign financing to the board, but that appointing members remains a "poison pill."

"The rest of the bill is tainted such that it shouldn't be supported," he said. "What everyone can agree upon is that appointments to the Board of Education and diluting the power of the voters is a nonstarter."