First hearing on school board format is Thursday

The first of four hearings on which school board format is right for Wicomico County will take place tonight at 6 p.m. at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center.

The result of the public discussion will likely be a referendum seeking residents’ final opinions on an elected school board.

Back in December, County Executive Bob Culver and the County Council made a formal request for state legislation that would allow a vote on an elected board.

“With regard to the Board of Education, the only way to resolve our differences is through transparency and accountability,” Culver wrote then. “To that end, I will put forth legislation asking for an elected school board that will be accountable to taxpayers.”

But the General Assembly had other ideas.

A perceived lack of public input on the matter prompted state Sen. Jim Mathias to oppose the measure. Bills in both houses of the state legislature failed to even get out of committee.

Now, eight months later, county officials are taking their time and following all of the processes to a “T.” Four public hearing will be held across the county in the next two months, seeking to learn the public’s opinion on the issue, while also seeking to inform county citizens on what options exist for an elected school board.

County leaders are looking at three options — each containing some wide variances — when establishing a framework for the Wicomico Board of Education.

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.

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.

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 appointed by the governor.

A second option — one that would keep the appointment decision more local — would be to have five elected positions and two positions appointed by the County Executive.

The appointments would be made with the advice and consent from the County Council, and the executive would be expected to seek advice from county residents at large.

Under this scenario, the executive would be expected to ensure — to the extent possible — that the total board composition reflects the county’s gender, ethnic and racial diversity. The county’s minority population is about 30 percent, but 51 percent of the county’s public school students are classified as minorities.

In answer to some concerns that county executive involvement might unduly politicize the appointments, a school board Nominating Commission is considered an option.

Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties have such commissions, which can be appointed through the coordination of the executive and legislative branches.

Wicomico, Anne Arundel and Baltimore are the only remaining counties in Maryland without elected school boards, but the two western shore counties — through the commissions — have some measure of local input. Anne Arundel also holds retention elections for those appointed.

The governor retains appointment power in these two counties, but he is generally bound to choose from the list of nominees submitted.

County residents are encouraged to attend a convenient hearing, listen to the various options and offer their opinions.

County Council members and appropriate council staff members will be in attendance.

The locations for the dates selected by the Council for holding public hearings:

  • Thursday, Sept. 10 — Midway Room, Wicomico Youth & Civic Center.
  • Tuesday, Sept. 22 —        Delmar Elementary School, Foskey Lane, Delmar.
  • Tuesday, Sept. 29 — First Baptist Church, 529 Booth St., Salisbury.
  • Thursday, Oct. 15 — Pittsville Fire Hall, 7442 Gumboro Rd, Pittsville.

All of the public hearings will begin at 6 p.m.

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

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