Sen. Mathias: School board measure lacked necessary public input


The elected leader being blasted as opposing an elected school board for Wicomico said the measure died in the General Assembly because too-little public input was included in the bill’s formation.

State Sen. Jim Mathias, D-38th, said he remains fully in favor of an elected board, but the public must first place a role in working out the particulars.

“I’ve been asking for public hearings for 3 ½ years,” he said from the Senate floor on Tuesday. “I have said repeatedly that public hearings need to be held — it’s never happened.”

Mathias has been criticized because his lack of support for the measure was seen as dooming it in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. That panel, last week, declined to even vote on whether to send SB 730 to the Senate floor.

“We need to show a process that provides opportunities for the citizens of Wicomico County to voice their views and be best informed to make their choice,” Mathias said. “We went through an entire election-summer and fall — I don’t remember it ever coming up.”

State Sen. Addie Eckhardt, R-37th, the measure’s chief sponsor, was the first to confirm the bill would not make it out of committee. Its companion bill faced the same fate in the House of Delegates.

Based on feedback in State House legislative circles, three problems derailed the measure this year:

  • Questions about whether the plan submitted for an elected board would have ensured diverse representation.
  • Whether a hybrid elected/appointed board would be too politically inclined.
  • Concerns about overall public commitment in Wicomico to public education funding.

Eckhardt alluded to the Mathias factor in explaining what went wrong. “Delegations need to agree to support a local initiative,” she said.

The composition of the legislation, and with that the makeup of the school board, was a problem in lawmakers’ eyes.

“Concerns were present regarding representation and having all members elected,” Eckhardt said, “so after reviewing other counties’ practice and experience (Wicomico) County put forth a hybrid board with five members elected and two appointed by the County Executive with the advice and consent of the County Council.

“From my experience in other counties’ experiences, there is always concern about the change,” she said. “Following the public hearing several additional amendments to the proposal were adopted. The bill clearly sets out the membership, process and specifics for the option that would occur dependent on the outcome of the 2016 ballot question.”

Mathias said there remains plenty of time to achieve the primary goal of having the issue placed before the voters in fall 2016.

“We have until the middle of August next year to get this thing on the fall ’16 ballot,” he said. “We owe it to the people to get it right. (Wicomico) County needs to formulate all of the possibilities and present those to the public.

“It’ll be up to the public now to do the democracy thing: Hold hearings, discuss, debate — and make a plan.”

Mathias added: “I truly believe the opportunity for public dialogue with an honest exchange of ideas has been inadequate.”

The senator said there were questions for which he had no answers, because he had no sense of what the public truly wanted. Those questions included whether all school board members should be elected, whether some should be appointed, and by whom.

Two weeks ago, several local officials and education representatives testified before both the House and Senate committees hearing the measure. County Council President John Cannon addressed the House committee; Councilman Marc Kilmer addressed the Senate.

Reaction in the Senate committee was especially negative, where concerns were raised about the diversity implications of the Wicomico plan.

Eckhardt said the elected school board measure was certainly a product of the fall elections.

“There has been much discussion about an elected school board for Wicomico County over the past four years,” Eckhardt said. “During the election the topic seemed to be foremost as candidates went door to door.”

It was in December that County Executive Bob Culver announced he would set the elected-board process into motion in the new year.

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

Delegate Carl Anderton, R-38B, said there were some positives in delaying action until the public was better consulted.

“The delay affords us a great opportunity to have a yearlong  dialogue about the issue,” said Anderton. “It will give more time for everyone to weigh in and reassure anyone with concerns that next year’s bill is reflective of community concerns.”

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