For years, those whose political leanings point conservative — and who have publicly questioned spending decisions on the part of the Wicomico County Board of Education — have wanted to see a popularly elected school board.
Their effort has at long last come to fruition, with the matter being a referendum question on the 2016 ballot.
Found on the ballot as Question A, voters will be asked their preference: Should the county continue with an appointed board, implement a totally elected one, or have a format that allows somewhat of a mixture of the two?
To be exact, this is the language that those who have participated in early voting, and the rest who will vote Tuesday, are asked to weigh:
Wicomico County Board of Education — Election and Appointment of Members
The members of the Wicomico County Board of Education are currently appointed by the Governor. The referendum presents three options for how the seven members of the board should be chosen:
Option 1 — Retain the current appointed board system in which the Governor appoints the members of the board;
Option 2 — Change to an elected board, with five members elected by voters and and two at-large members elected by the all voters of Wicomico County;
Option 3 — Change to a combination of members who are elected and who are appointed, with five members elected by voters within the voters; council district and two members appointed by the Wicomico County Council from a list of nominees proposed by a school board nominating commission.
In Maryland election history, it has been extremely rare that voters would be asked to select from three options in a referendum. Traditionally, referendums are “for” or “against” exercisies. In this election, in regard to the school board, voters will have to raise the complexity of their thinking and choose from among options with both definite and subtle distinctions.
Option 1 — Appointed Board
The current school board is an appointed body, ultimately selected by whoever happens to occupy the Maryland governor’s seat.
Candidates traditionally apply and are vetted by the local party Central Committees, but contenders can apply directly to the governor. Nominees are also interviewed by the governor or gubernatorial staff members. The seven board seats are essentially slotted to a partisan breakdown; the current school board contains four Republican members, and three Democrats.
The appointed members serve five-year terms, which are staggered to preserve continuity.
Option 2 — All-Elected Board
County leaders are considering various structures to the elected-board format.
A leading option is a seven-member all-elected board that mimics the current format for electing County Council members.
Five members would be elected from the council’s existing geographical districts; two members would be elected at large from the entire county.
One variation would be to have five district-only seats, and not have the at-large seats. Concerns about always having a quorum — given the smaller body — have been raised regarding that idea.
Option 3 — Hybrid Board
Concerns about the school board membership containing diversity to match the county has prompted discussion of a hybrid board. One option would be to have five members elected from districts and two appointments coming from a school board Nominating Commission. The commission would be a large 14-member affair, with the goal of ensuring a school board that reflects the county’s demographics. Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties have such commissions, which can be appointed through the coordination of the executive and legislative branches.
The elections will be nonpartisan and would be conducted in gubernatorial election years.
Candidates would have to be a resident of Wicomico County for one year prior to the election, as well as a registered voter of the county.
Even though there will be no attached party affiliations, if more than two candidates run in any district or for each at-large position, all shall be placed on the primary election ballot. The two who receive the most votes shall move on to the general election.
Terms would be reduced from the current five years to four-year terms of office, with members taking their seats on the first Monday in December after the election.
In appointing members to the Board of Education — as recommended by the Nominating Commission — the County Council will be expected to ensure the school board reflects the gender, ethnic and racial makeup of the county.
Currently, school board members are paid $3,700 annually (the board president is paid $4,000). County leaders have wondered aloud if the pay should be higher.
What is the school board?
Public school board members are the crucial links between system administrators and the public.
The also serve as advocates for education, and represent the public in situations where policies are being decided and plans are being made that will affect local education.
Among the members’ duties:
- Establish the curriculum.
- Prepare and submit the annual school system budget.
- Acquire land for school sites and contract for facility construction.
- Appoint the county’s schools superintendent.
- Review annual audit and financial reports.
- Approve school system purchases in excess of $25,000.
- Implement a comprehensive master plan for student and school accountability.
- Approve contracts to hire and employ school personnel; negotiate with employee organizations.
- Select and purchase textbooks.
Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at email@example.com