Schools hearings continue; Civic Center forum sees small turnout

The third of four county-wide hearings to gather input on how to best select a school board will be held tonight at Delmar Elementary School on Foskey Lane in Delmar.

Previous hearings were held earlier this month at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center, and last week at Delmar Elementary School.

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

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.

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

In the Sept. 10 public hearing at the Civic Center, a clear majority of those who spoke favored a popularly elected school board. While only about 30 people were in attendance, there was no opposition to a referendum and only a few people voiced real opposition to a publicly elected board.

David Snyder of the citizens advocacy group “We Decide” gave a presentation in which he said the group backed a board that was elected in the same manner as the County Council, with five legislative district and two at-large members.

Joe Collins of Mardela Springs said it was time that Wicomico adopt a system already in place across most of Maryland.

“I did my research, I was amazed and shocked by how many counties in Maryland elect their school boards. It’s almost all of them,” Collins said. “So there are only two counties — with Wicomico as one of them — that that doesn’t elected their school board.”

Added Collins: “This isn’t about whether it’s wrong or right to make it appointed. It’s about giving the voters the chance to decide whether or not they want it.”

Bennett Middle School music teacher Gary Hammer, who heads the Wicomico Education Association, said the teachers he represents are not formally opposed to any of the three board-format proposals.

“We are fully supporting the idea that the people of Wicomico County should be able to decide,” Hammer said. “It’s all about choice. Whatever goes on the ballot shouldn’t be one choice. If we’re really about people having a voice, there really has to be more than one choice.”

Dr. Mark Edney of the Wicomico County Republican Central Committee was especially critical of the current appointed-board system.

“Quite simply, this comes down to having the county adopt the most transparent, democratic  process possible,” Edney said. “Let’s take away the current appointed system that is secretive (and) crony driven … if you are connected and you know the right people, then you get appointed to the school board.

“You should be accountable to the taxpayers and the voters of Wicomico County should have a choice on how our schools are run,” Edney said. “There’s a reason the 23 other counties have gone the way of democracy and are having the people choose. Because it’s transparent, it’s the most accountable system.”

Later in the evening, School Board President Don Fitzgerald rose to take exception with Edney’s analysis. Fitzgerald, a Democrat, was recently reappointed to the board by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

“I’m not a crony of anyone,” he declared. “I’m Don Fitzgerald and I stand for who I am.”

Jon Sherwell, a local bank executive and school board member from 2003-08, sought to address “several myths” the public has concerning the school board. Sherwell was appointed to the baord by Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, though his nomination was not vetted by the GOP Central Committee.

“It’s not true that it’s partisan,” said Sherwell, “registered Independents may and have previously been appointed to the board.”

Sherwell also explained that the board cannot dictate how much money the county must provide for education, and that those formulas are based on state Maintenance of Effort requirements.

“It’s a myth that the school board has a say in how much money the county will provide,” Sherwell said. “That is a County Council decision, the County Council has the finally authority.”

Costly school construction has also been a criticism lobbed at the board, but Sherwell said the board wasn’t to blame.

“The school board has no control over school construction,” he said. “Those decisions are a product of the School Building Commission, which only has two school board members, as well as two County Council members and many community specialists in the trades of architecture construction, engineering, etc. And all of those plans are submitted to the CC for their consideration, input and finally approval.”

State Delegate Sheree Sample Hughes suggested school board meetings be televised on PAC 14, so citizens can see the many decisions the school board makes and have a better and more accurate understanding of what the board’s duties are.

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

  • 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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