SALISBURY — After taking his lumps this week over the elected school board issue in Wicomico County, State Senator Jim Mathias (D-38) aimed to clear the air this week about his position, reporting his lack of support for a bill that would put the question to referendum in 2016 was due to the public not yet being fully engaged.
For several years, Wicomico County has wrestled with the concept of going from a school board appointed by the governor to an elected school board or a combination of the two. In 2011, a bill that would have put the question to the voters in Wicomico through the referendum process passed through the House with amendments and got before the full Senate, but the clock expired on the session before it could come to a vote. Nearly four years later, the issue has surfaced again and has gotten particularly nasty this time around. State Senator Addie Eckardt (R-37) has introduced legislation that would put the question of an elected school board to the voters in the general election in 2016.
Wicomico remains one of the few jurisdictions in the state with a school board fully appointed by the governor. In the proposed referendum, the voters in Wicomico would ostensibly have a choice between keeping a school board appointed by the governor or opting for the bill’s proposed hybrid proposal, which would include five elected members from each of the county’s council districts along with two appointed members chosen by the County Executive with the advice and consent of the County Council. Also included would be one non-voting student representative.
In typical protocol, a “local courtesy bill” such as a request for a referendum for an elected school board would come with the blessing of both senators from the jurisdiction making the request, in this case Eckardt and Mathias. However, Eckardt has introduced the bill without Mathias as a co-sponsor, an omission that did not get by the committee chairperson. As a result, Mathias was lambasted this week by the Salisbury News blog for his perceived lack of support for the hybrid school board proposal. The blog on Wednesday published Mathias’ contact information, including his cell phone number.
The blog urged readers to reach out to Mathias immediately to voice their displeasure with the fact he was not a co-sponsor of the bill. As a result, the senator was bombarded with calls, texts and emails, not all of which were entirely pleasant. However, Mathias stood by his decision not to sign on to the legislation at this point and said his resistance was based on his notion the public had not been fully engaged in the issue and that he had co-sponsored the legislation in 2011 that just failed to get to a vote before the session expired.
“Historically, whether it’s Wicomico, Worcester or Somerset, I have always supported an elected school board,” he said. “However, what I have always urged, specifically with Wicomico, is public debate and hearings so the public gets fully involved. Anytime this issue has been raised, I’ve always urged public hearings be held.”
There was one scantily attended public hearing held earlier this winter just about the same time the legislation calling for a referendum was filed.
“There was one public hearing held almost simultaneously with when the bill was sent up,” he said. “That gave me a pause. It occurred to me this never had the full engagement from the public. I wanted to make sure the county citizenry supports this and make sure all who are invested in the schools are aware of this.”
Mathias said he did not sign on to the Eckardt bill because he was not confident it represented the will of the majority of the citizens in Wicomico.
“I think it’s vital for this information to be disseminated,” he said. “That didn’t happen to the extent that I was satisfied the public had a chance to weigh in.”
Mathias said when he had an opportunity to view the bill, he didn’t sign on to it after some soul searching and fact finding because he wasn’t certain the citizens of Wicomico had given it their blessing. He said the referendum on an elected school board for Wicomico would not be held until the November 2016 general election at the earliest.
Mathias said he checked with the state Board of Elections and any referendum question would have to be approved by mid-August 2016 in order to get on the ballot. That means the General Assembly will have another entire session to approve the referendum and still have plenty of time to get the question on the ballot in November 2016.
“There is ample time for public discussion and debate before we move forward with this right now,” he said. “This issue has been lingering for three-and-a-half or four years and we still have over a year-and-half to get it approved in time to get on the ballot in 2016, including another full session. It appears this is being done hastily while there is plenty of time. There needs to be a public hearing process for something as vital as this to hear the choices from the voters.”
Despite the backlash he received this week, Mathias said he remains confident in his decision not to back the bill without appropriate public input.
“I’m standing firm,” he said. “I hope most people don’t see that as being an obstructionist for an elected school board in Wicomico County. I just want to make sure the people have a voice and a choice. As it stands now, they only have a choice and not a voice.”
In terms of the blitz of negative calls, texts and emails he received this week, Mathias said it came with the territory.
“That’s part of the reality of being a public servant and that’s okay,” he said. “I just want to make certain people realize I’m not being an obstructionist, but rather an inclusionist.”