With its silence, Assembly says ‘No’ to elected school board for Wicomico

Long Avenue

Wicomico voters won’t be getting a chance to select their school board members, and won’t even be participating on a referendum to decide the matter — at least not anytime soon.

State Senate Bill 730, which would have permitted a county referendum on the issue, failed to even undergo a vote in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. It’s companion bill in the House of Delegates is likely to see a similar fate.

State Sen. Addie Eckhardt, R-37th, the measure’s chief sponsor, confirmed late Thursday that the bill will not make it out of committee.

Said Eckhardt: “… There is not agreement at this time to proceed.”

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.

Also complicating the Annapolis processes: state Sen. Jim Mathias had declined to co-sponsor the measure; Senate committee leadership is disinclined to move along measures that lack locally elected legislators’ full backing.

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.”

Last week, 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.

Salisbury Mayor Jim Ireton criticized the bill at length when testifying before the Senate panel.

Reaction within 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.”

In recent years, elected school boards have been gaining ground in the state. Worcester County switched to an elected board in the 2002 elections.

It has seven geographical districts, including one majority-minority district. The current board make-up is four white men, one black male and one white female.

In 2000, Worcester voters approved an elected school board by referendum. Controversial and politically tense at the time, by 2006 the tensions had dissolved to the point where none of the four incumbents up for election that year even faced opposition.

Worcester staggered its appointed-elected seats to prevent a total board turnover in a single election.

The next scheduled countywide balloting is a primary election in April 2016.

This story will be updated.

 

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

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