All signs are pointing toward a referendum seeking Wicomico residents’ opinions on an elected school board.
In a holiday message dispatched just before Christmas, County Executive Bob Culver announced he would set the process into motion in the new year.
“With regard to the Board of Education, the only way to resolve our differences is through transparency and accountability,” Culver wrote. “To that end, I will put forth legislation asking for an elected school board that will be accountable to taxpayers.”
Culver and his newly elected council colleagues, attending a business forum at the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, revealed last month that a referendum was on their fast track.
Don Coffin, a Salisbury Realtor who led the revenue cap crusade in 2000, but who has been seldom seen in similar forums since he lost a race for County Council in 2002, appeared at the Dec. 11 Chamber venue and immediately asked the group’s position on an elected school board.
Coffin stated a list of reasons, including “accountability, autonomy (and) more input from the citizens regarding the operation and the management of the school system.”
Culver responded then: “I was on the council that voted to put this on a referendum and find out what the people wanted, and I’m still willing to push that forward.”
Five of the council’s member were present that day, and all offered reasons for why they supported electing school board members.
“I would be in favor of an elected school board. I would like to see how it plays out,” said Council President John Cannon. “I am not saying throw the bums out, because that is not the situation (we’re) in. I just feel an elected school board will demonstrate more accountability, and that’s just my feeling.”
Councilman John Hall said he had researched the topic and elected boards seem to make no difference — yet he supports the referendum.
“I would like to see it brought to a referendum and have the voters say whether they want an elected school board or not,” Hall said. “In my research that I’ve done over the last couple of years, I have asked for community leaders and educational people to bring me proof that an elected school board is better than an appointed one. There is none.”
Councilman Joe Holloway invoked a quote frequently offered by former state senator and County Councilman Lewis Riley.
Referring to his fellow Parsonsburg Republican, Holloway recalled that Riley said: “If anyone ever tells you to run for school board, run — the other way.”
Still Holloway supports the referendum.
“It’s a pretty unthankful job,” he said, “but I’m in favor of an elected school board. Elected school board/appointed school board … nothing is going to solve all of the problems. But the school board does spend about a half of our budget.
“I think really, in a roundabout way, we’re seeing taxation without representation.”
Added Holloway, a frequent critic of school administration spending: “We’ve got good school board members at this time — there’s no doubt. But you have people here in the community (who) I’ve heard say ‘why don’t we have an elected school board? — why can’t we vote for our school board members?’”
Council newcomer Marc Kilmer said the issue was one frequently raised when he was going door-to-door to meet voters.
“This isn’t to disparage people who are on the board now, but you have different incentives, based on how you are selected for a position,” Kilmer said, “and right now the governor of Maryland selects the school board in Wicomico County. Whether that’s Martin O’Malley or Larry Hogan, that governor probably doesn’t spend two minutes a day thinking about the quality of education in Wicomico County. He just has bigger things to deal with.”
He added: “An elected school board is certainly not an answer to any of the issues we have in the community, but it’s another method that the people in this community could use to make the changes that they want to the educational system.”
Kim Hudson, a Wicomico school board member and Salisbury Independent contributor, said focusing on whether to changed to an elected board might distract the decision-makers and the public alike.
“Personally, I’m neither for or opposed. I believe research shows no difference between the effectiveness of and elected vs. an appointed board,” she said.
“I do feel we will lose sight of what is most important by focusing on this issue.”
Worcester County switched to an elected board in the 2002 elections. It has seven geographical districts, including one majority-minority district. The current board make-up is four white men, one black male and one white female.
Worcester’s members serve staggered four-year terms, with either three or four members standing election every two years. In the 2014 election, four members were up for approval: two were re-elected, one was defeated, one was elected to an open seat.
In Maryland, 18 of its 24 districts have elected boards; two counties have hybrid boards composed of both elected and appointed members. Candidates run without party affiliation listed on the ballot.
Appointed boards in Maryland typically have five-year terms.
In 2000, Worcester voters approved an elected school board by referendum. Controversial and politically tense at the time, by 2006 the tensions had dissolved to the point where none of the four incumbents up for election that year even faced opposition.
Worcester staggered its appointed-elected seats to prevent a total board turnover in a single election.
The next scheduled countywide balloting is a primary election in April 2016.
Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org