Hybrid School Board Issue Raises Questions

SALISBURY — While across town hundreds gathered for a public hearing on proposed drastic cuts to the Wicomico public school budget, a handful of ardent supporters of an elected school board in the county made known their preference for an elected school board in front of the County Council.

Last month, the Wicomico County Council voted in favor of adding a straw ballot referendum question on the 2012 general election ballot asking residents to vote for either an elected school board or one appointed by the governor. Last year, the council formally asked the county’s delegation in Annapolis to introduce legislation creating a non-binding vote on a change from the current appointed school board to one elected by Wicomico voters.

Bills were introduced in both the House and Senate, but language added late in the process suggesting a hybrid of elected and appointed school board members stalled the legislation and the bills died as the General Assembly session closed. The County Council is now preparing to again ask its delegation in Annapolis to submit bills allowing for a November 2012 referendum on the issue, but the same hybrid plan continues to threaten the process.

Some camps want a completely elected Wicomico County school board, while others appear to be in favor of maintaining the status quo. Still others, largely the Wicomico County NAACP chapter, favor the hybrid version, which they believe provides a greater opportunity for minority representation on the body.

Throughout the summer months, the debate has raged on as the next General Assembly session nears. In September, the Wicomico Council held a public forum for representatives from all camps to voice their opinions, and opened the floor again this week during their regular meeting on Tuesday. While the comments were few, they remained as diversified as the number of options on the table.

“Is an elected school board a silver bullet? No,” said G.A. Harrison. “But it will provide more accountability then the current situation, where the school board kowtows to the superintendent and the administration. People who have to pay for our public schools have no say in how the money is spent. Under the current situation, the school board views the taxpayer as a slot machine, or a sponge, from which to extract money.”

County resident Michael Swartz agreed an elected school board would take politics out of the classroom.

“The system now in place is perverted to political ends,” he said. “That’s why most counties now have elected school boards. Why should we continue with a policy rejected by most counties.”

Most who spoke on Tuesday favored a fully elected school board and wanted the potential referendum question to be a simple yes or no choice without the distractions of the hybrid system. “Up or down” or “yes or no” became a mantra of sorts during Tuesday’s open forum.

“I don’t think an elected school board is a magic pill that will make the challenges go away by any stretch, but it is a first step toward accountability,” said county resident and parent Julie Brewington. “The discussion of a hybrid school board has befuddled this process. We need a straight up or down vote to allow the people of this county to decide.”

Nonetheless, Wicomico County NAACP Director Mary Ashanti continued to push for language allowing for a hybrid school board of five elected members and two members appointed by the governor.

“Having more than one option allows for more informed choices,” she said. “The issue before us is how the referendum will be worded. The voters of Wicomico County should be allowed to decide.”