Michael Swartz: Wicomico needs an elected school board

In reading a recent summary of the points brought up in testimony before the Maryland Senate regarding our county’s expressed desire to convert from a fully-appointed Board of Education to a “hybrid” elected and appointed body, I seized upon several arguments I’d like to address.self-portrait

The first was the financial argument presented by Sen. Karen Montgomery in her line of questioning. Indeed, the county receives a large amount of money from the state for its Board of Education, in part because it’s one of those eight counties (plus Baltimore City) which has “less than 80 percent of the statewide average wealth per pupil.”

Sen. Addie Eckardt brought up the difficult economic times we’ve seen over the last several years, but that’s not the correct argument to counter this point.

Rather, one must examine the root of all government money: the taxpayer. Perhaps there’s an assumption everyone has the means and willingness to give government whatever it wants, but many concerned Wicomico County residents come from that seemingly quaint and disappearing class of people who actually demand accountability for our taxpayer dollars.

We elect a County Executive to control the budget, so why not a school board as well?

This is not the first time the subject of an elected Board of Education has come up. The previous edition of County Council resolved to ask Annapolis for a simple straw ballot to determine interest in further legislation only to be thwarted by opponents who charged that the proposed system didn’t properly address the concerns of the minority community.

To me, that was a tacit admission that the community interest was there, but an elected board did not meet with the political desires.

While the main issues of last fall’s election were the state and local economy, and that government was not being careful with our money, there was an underlying sentiment that our educational system also needed improvement and accountability. Thus, two opponents of an elected Board of Education were voted out, and two proponents were voted in.

Yet the new county government listened to one key demand of the opponents and compromised. While I was not happy that the fully elected body was replaced by a version with two appointed members and five elected, I realized time was of the essence.

I suspect the opponents know what the public input will be: a resounding approval when placed before the voters.

But I want to conclude with the sentiment that, “it was a select few who made the call for an elected school board.” My argument is a select few participate in the process now.

For eight years I was a voting member of the Wicomico County Republican Central Committee. As such, one task of ours was to assist in the appointment of Republican school board members.

Yet despite our vetting of candidates, more often than not the appointee was determined by others with deeper political interests. The final say actually comes down to the state’s Secretary of Appointments, who is appointed by the governor – a governor who a majority in our county didn’t support in 2006 or 2010. Where was our public input then?

Over the last two weeks, the WCRCC dutifully interviewed prospective members and submitted names to the Secretary of Appointments to fill two current vacancies on the school board. But due to various circumstances it was a bare quorum of five members who selected the top-ranked candidates.

Five people submitted names to one person to make this decision, and yet this is considered superior to a process where thousands of people would participate and vet candidates?

In November, we elected a county government charged with an annual operating budget of roughly $130 million. Yet the appointed Board of Education is submitting an overall budget in excess of $190 million, of which they are asking the county for $39 million.

When it comes to maximizing accountability and local control, the verdict is simple: an elected school board – even in this “hybrid” form – is the proper way to proceed.

Opponents are hiding behind a series of smokescreens to obscure their real issue: their loss of political influence over Wicomico County’s school system.

Michael Swartz operates a political website in Wicomico County. Contact him at monoblogue.us@gmail.com.

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