One Salisbury: Get ready to debate elected school board

school board signs

Unless I’m reading the tea leaves wrong, it appears that voters in and around Salisbury are going to be deciding soon whether a sign like the one pictured above may someday dot our landscape. In other words, it seems that the long discussed question: “Do the voters of Wicomico County want/need/desire an elected school board?” is headed to a ballot box near you — perhaps as soon as Fall 2016.

For the living under a rock portion of our reading audience, a brief recap may be in order. As currently constructed, the seven-member school board (which, to be clear, is NOT charged with the administrative/day-to-day operations side of the Wicomico County Board of Education, headed by Superintendent Dr. John Fredericksen) is now appointed by Maryland’s governor. Those seven people serve five-year terms, and may serve for a two-terms maximum.

Our local Republican and/or Democratic State Central Committees have, traditionally, interviewed citizens who wish to seek appointment by the governor, and make recommendations to the governor based on those interviews. That process, however, isn’t cast in stone. Some members over the years have bypassed that process, and — to my way of looking at it — that’s both fine and encouraged.

The current Wicomico County Council has the political will, it seems, to ask the electorate — via the ballot box — if this appointed school board is how we want to proceed.

According to the Republican-majority council, an elected school board is near the top of its constituents’ priorities. This past winter, acting on those priorities, the County Council took a vote, and got our local legislative representatives to introduce a bill in the Maryland General Assembly that, if passed, would put the elected school board question on that Fall 2016 ballot. The bill never made it out of committee.

So now, with guidance from Annapolis on how to proceed, the County Council is moving toward getting a similar bill introduced in the 2016 legislature. A series of public discussions is planned by the council in the next few months, to give the electorate a chance to weigh in — and to help the council to narrow in on the exact language of the bill.

These meetings will go a long way toward convincing our legislators in Annapolis that a more thorough and better process for this whole question has taken place. In theory, it also gives the bill a much better chance of passing next time.

That’s the situation; now, then, the questions for each of us to ponder in our own way.

Clearly, the school board is now, and has always been, run through the spin cycle of politics. But, just as clearly, it will now be overtly political — as in, people will be running for the gig, instead of being appointed to it. Does that, will that, serve us better?

As any simple Google search will show, there’s not much to advocate when running for school board. “I care about students” or “Putting kids first” seems to be the prevailing political sentiment.

So, if we have an elected school board, who will run? Neighboring counties have elected school boards. Often, those races are uncontested.

Who will do a better job of representing a cross-section of education advocates than, say: Dr. Eddie Boyd; Robin Holloway; Michelle Wright; Ed “Sonny” Henry; Dr. Kel Nagel; Kim Hudson; Don Fitzgerald — a sampling of past and current board members who are about as unassailable a group of public servants that we could ever possibly want.

Interestingly, not one of them, based on their comments of late, would have run for the job — if they hadn’t been appointed. Would an elected school board serve us better? Would it be more accountable to the public it serves? Do we want this process to become, by default, that much more political?

Approximately 95 percent of school boards across the country are elected. That’s a fact. Data collected and distributed by the Maryland Association of Boards of Education show that, officially, neither an elected nor an appointed school board outperforms the other. That’s also a fact.

There’s so much more to come. And, I could go on forever. Soon, in Salisbury and the surrounding communities, we’ll all get to weigh in.

Let’s do so. Let’s do so with facts, not myths. Let’s do so in a positive tone, and not an accusatory one.

Let’s decide this question — once and for all. And then, let’s get back to the things that can really make a difference.

Mike Dunn, a former Salisbury City Council president, operates the community website.

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