County Council finds consensus on school board referendum

After four public forums and hours of discussion, Wicomico County Council members appear headed toward a consensus how to enact an elected school board.

And the question no longer seems to be whether to have a board ─ the only question is how a mostly elected board is formatted.

The council has scheduled time in their upcoming Tuesday meeting to set the parameters for the measure they will forward to local General Assembly members. A public referendum would come only after state lawmakers and the governor in Annapolis approve their request.

There is clear council consensus that a majority of the board be voter selected and that seven members serve. Council members appear headed toward a referendum that would ask voters to select from two options: one, whether the school board should be comprised of seven publicly elected members; two, whether the board should have five elected members and two appointed by the County Executive.

Under the latter scenario, consensus points to a commission selecting four nominees, from whom the County Executive would pick two members; the council would be called upon to sign off on those appointments.

This hybrid model, it is argued, would ensure proper diversity representation on the school board. The five elected board seats would follow the election districting plan used to elect the County Council, and that offers only one majority-minority district.

About half of the county’s approximately 14,500 public school students are classified as minorities.

Councilman Joe Holloway, speaking at last week’s council meeting, said the referendum should be kept as simple as possible.

“I think we should have an up or down vote, either for an elected school board or not for an elected school board. Keep it simple,” he said.

“I’m in favor of fully elected, but I don’t know if that would satisfy everybody in Annapolis,” Holloway said, therefore he said he’d be “OK with hybrid.”

County Executive Bob Culver said he and Holloway were in complete agreement.

Council President John Cannon said he was still awaiting some clarification on how many questions could be put on the ballot ─ whether voters could be asked to choose among fully elected, hybrid or a committee-appointed board.

“Initially, the (state) Board of Elections said they could handle having three on the ballot ─ mechanically, at least. We’re waiting for and assessment to see what can be achieved.”

Councilman John Hall asked if the ballot question would be a straw poll or binding.

“I don’t think the council ever intended for there to be a straw poll ─ we’re trying to get this to referendum,” Cannon replied.

Mary Ashanti, president of the NAACP Wicomico branch, said she and other key stakeholders in the debate had met and agreed that two referendum options would be sufficient.

“Voters could choose all-elected or five elected and two appointed,” she said. “If I voted for one, I couldn’t vote for the other, and that would be acceptable.”

The council must make their final decisions on Nov. 3 in a special work session because the measure is due to state lawmakers Nov. 16 to ensure its inclusion in the General Assembly’s upcoming 2016 session.

If approved, the referendum would appear on the November 2016 ballot.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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