Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Governor Announces Appointees to School Board Nominating Commission

Newspaper: Capital
Title: Officials name school appointees http://ads1.hometownannapolis.com/adserver/adlog.php?bannerid=
Date: November 6, 2007

ANNAPOLIS - Officials yesterday announced the appointments to the county's first School Board Nominating Commission, part of a revamped process to appoint and retain members of the county Board of Education.

The 11-member commission, formed by legislation passed earlier this year, will generate a list of candidates to fill board vacancies as they arise. Beginning next year, Gov. Martin O'Malley will select appointees from that list, and those people will face a yes-or-no vote from county residents during the general election following the appointment. Members of the commission will serve four-year terms.

Mr. O'Malley's five appointments are:

Joshua C. Greene, an attorney from Crofton who will serve as the commission's chairman.

Christine Davenport, a one-time Anne Arundel County teacher and assistant principal from Glen Burnie.

Lee Roy Payne, a recently retired guidance counselor from Millersville.

Matthew C. Tedesco, an attorney from Odenton.

Konrad M. Wayson of Harwood, a former school board member and the managing partner of Wayson Land Holdings.

State law says the other six members of the nominating commission should be appointed by specific organizations. Those members are:

Yevola Peters, director of minority affairs for Anne Arundel County (appointed by County Executive John R. Leopold).

Tim Mennuti, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County (appointed by the teachers' union).

Sandra Anderson, who does community relations work for Comcast (appointed by the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce).

Anita Owens, president of the County Council of PTAs (appointed by the PTA council).

Arthur Ebersberger, chairman of the Anne Arundel County Community College Board of Trustees (appointed by the board of trustees).

Richard I. Kovelant, an Annapolis attorney (appointed by the Association of Education Leaders).

Friday, May 11, 2007

What is the explanation for the extraordinarily high turnout at this year's Nominating Convention?

I checked the turnout for the last 15 years of the Nominating Convention and discovered that this year the turnout was the highest it has been in the last 15 years. The second highest was in 1999 with 214 votes. The average during the fifteen year period was 141 votes. This year there were 248 votes. Does anyone have an explanation for this anomoly? Was there some unpublicized recruitment going on? For example, were any CACs lobbied?

By way of a possible explanation, consider a trend I’ve noticed. The Nominating Convention is most likely to be subverted when there are minimal political consequences for doing so. For example, the only two times in the last fifteen years when the Governor overlooked the Nominating Convention’s choices occurred when the Governor was in his 8th year in office and there were thus no long-term political consequences for bypassing the Nominating Convention’s recommendations. That is, there is a one-to-one correspondence between being in the 8th year of your term as governor and avoiding the choices of the Nominating Convention; it’s a perfect correspondence.

A rational explanation for this behavior can be found in a branch of political science known as “game theory.” In the last move of a political game there are no reputational effects to consider, so the political calculus tends to be dramatically different than in the earlier moves. This year was the last move for the Nominating Convention. Is it possible that some folks recognized and exploited that fact? Again, this is just a hypothesis and most hypotheses are wrong. But I think this is a worthy question to put out there to eliminate any nagging doubt.

One of the nice things about the Nominating Convention is that enough people are involved and there is enough transparency in the process that any large scale political corruption is hard to keep out of the sunlight. If something wasn’t quite right, I’m confident that at least some people on this mailing list would know about it and share their information via at least word-of-mouth. The Nominating Commission, in contrast, involves a handful of people--half appointed by only one person--and a much more secretive process. The opportunity for backroom deals that would not withstand the light of day is thus commensurately greater.

Consequently, whatever corrupution there might or might not have been with this year’s Nominating Convention (and by corruption I mean hidden exercise of power in a way that violates the democratic norm of political equality), the incentive for such corruption will only increase with the new Nominating Commission, not in its early years when the sunlight will shine most brightly and everybody will be on their best political behavior, but in its later years when its underlying political logic will work itself out.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Media Coverage Since the November 2006 Elections

Our say: Attack on school board selection reforms is ill-advised, Capital, May 10, 2007, Capital Editorial Board

Four nominated for school board: Governor has final say in filling two positions, Capital, May 10, 2007, Ryan Bagwell.

Simonaire still fighting for elected school board: He is spearheading petition drive to get referendum, Capital, May 8, 2007, by Liam Farrell

Both houses OK bills on selection of school board, Capital, March 27, 2007, Liam Farrell and Jeff Horseman, Staff Writers

Bills take shape in General Assembly: School board, panhandling move ahead, Capital, March 18, 2007, Liam Farrell, Staff Writer

School Board Bill: No Election, but More Say for Public, Washington Post, , March 15, 2007; Page AA03, William Wan, Staff Writer

Our say: School board selection reform finally on track, Capital, March 11, 2007, Capital Editorial Board.

Local senators OK compromise bill 3-2, Capital, March 10, 2007, Liam Farrell.

School board bill dropped: Legislator won't seek referendum to require directly elected panel, Baltimore Sun, March 9, 2007, Susan Gvozdas

Letters to the Editor, Maryland Gazette, March 3, 2007, p. A8.

Your say: Which school board system do you prefer, elected or appointed? The Maryland Gazette, March 3, 2007, p. A8

Letters to the Editor, The Capital, February 28, 2007, p. A10.

Guest Column: Wanted: A voice, not a commission, The Maryland Gazette, February 28, 2007, p. A10, State Senator Brian Simonaire

A Push for New Way To Fill School Board: 2 Bills Give Momentum to an Old Debate, Washington Post, February 22, 2007, p. AA03, William Wan, Staff Writer.

Our say: Delegation should pass Leopold's school board plan, Capital, February 16, 2007, Capital Editorial Board.

Lawmakers face choice of school board bills, Capital, February 15, 2007, Pg. A1, Liam Farrell, Staff Writer.

A Lesson in School Rule: Assembly leaders oppose elected boards, but many Marylanders are demanding the choice, Baltimore Sun, January 29, 2007, Justin Fenton.

A Leader for the Schools: Mayoral Control Is The Path to Results, Washington Post, January 20, 2007, p. A23, Joel I. Klein.

General Assembly Preview, 9 of 20 in county delegation new, face learning curve; School board, panhandling, top local issues, The Capital (Annapolis, MD), January 7, 2007, Pg. A1.

Election of school boards resurfaces: Old issue returns as dissatisfaction with panels grows, The Baltimore Sun (Maryland), January 4, 2007, Pg. 1A, Justin Fenton and Mary Gail Hare, Sun reporters.

Letters to the Editor, The Capital (Annapolis, MD), January 4, 2007, Pg. A10.

Senator to offer bill for elected school board, The Capital (Annapolis, MD), December 21, 2006; Pg. A12, JEFF HORSEMAN; Staff Writer.

SPEAKOUT, The Baltimore Sun, December 17, 2006; Pg. 4G.

Our view: Legislators should fix school board system, The Capital (Annapolis, MD), December 15, 2006; EDITORIAL; Pg. A8.

Leopold promotes elected school board, The Maryland Gazette, December 9, 2006; Pg. A1, DAVID ABRAMS; Staff Writer.

Elected school board bill will return, The Capital (Annapolis, MD), December 8, 2006; Pg. A1, DAVID ABRAMS; Staff Writer.

Our view: Votes speak louder than pols' words, The Capital (Annapolis, MD), November 6, 2006; EDITORIAL; Pg. A12.

School Board Change Killed: Bill would have let panel create list of candidates, The Capital (Annapolis, MD), April 4, 2006, pg. A1.

Change School Board Selection? Baltimore Sun, March 20, 2005, p. 5G.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Reflections on Senators Greenip and Simonaire's petition drive to place HB1114 on the ballot

There is an old saying, "never say never."  I genuinely thought that my last post on the school board reform legislation would be my last, at least until the School Board Nominating Commission was implemented.  I knew that a petition to put HB1114 on the ballot was under consideration.  But I didn't take it seriously.   I was wrong.


Senators Greenip and Simonaire have now created an organization, Citizens for an Elected School Board, to get signatures for a petition to put HB1114 on the ballot in 2008.  To get on the ballot in 2008, they need 10,000 Anne Arundel resident signatures by May 23 (less than three weeks away) and another 9,000 by June 20.   Senators Greenip and Simonaire have widely e-mailed a letter regarding the petition and their new organization to County opinion leaders.


Citizens for an Elected School Board describes its mission as follows.


Citizens for an Elected School Board was formed in April 2007 in response to legislation passed by the General Assembly which significantly reduced citizen participation in the school board selection process in Anne Arundel County.


Currently, the organization is focused on gathering enough signatures in a petition drive to give citizens the final say over a school board selection scheme which all but eliminates citizen input in the entire process and turns control of the school board over to a handful of county special interest groups.


I'm not clear how serious Senators Greenip and Simonaire are about this initiative.  It's one thing to file a petition and send out a news release.  It's something very different to do the hard grunt work of getting 19,000 people to sign the petition.    The former is a good and inexpensive PR move when you're in the opposition.  The latter involves blood, sweat, and tears--all for a very uncertain outcome.     Having looked at their classy website and seen their e-mail  campaign, I'm now inclined to believe they are more serious than when I got the first e-mail from them a week ago.    According to their website, they went door-to-door last weekend and intend to go door-to-door again this weekend. 


I support the petition to put HB1114 on the ballot, but not for the reasons laid out by Citizens for an Elected School Board.  Citizens for an Elected School Board links their petition drive to support for an elected school board, but I think the issue of electing a school board can and should be separated from giving the public an opportunity to debate the merits of HB1114.


I'm not necessarily opposed to an elected school board.  I do oppose the type of non-partisan, winner-take-all (also known as first-past-the-post) electoral system that has been proposed.  Another pet peeve of mine is the overwhelming focus  on the design of the general election as opposed to the primary, which I tend to view as at least as important as the general election. 


From my perspective as someone trained as a political scientist, I believe there is a reason why only authoritarian systems have single party, non-partisan electoral systems.  The public has been trained to hate partisan behavior and applaud non-partisan school boards, but mass democracy requires parties; without them, you tend to get the worst type of special interest politics, especially in low visibility elections in large political districts (like we have in Anne Arundel County). 


Winner-take-all electoral systems predominate in the U.S., so most Americans think of electoral systems and winner-take-all  voting rules as synonymous.  But proportional representation systems actually predominante in the rest of the world and have even been used in some large school districts in the U.S.  Whatever the virtues of winner-take-all for most U.S. elections--and the virtues of winner-take-all are great--they are arguably weaker in a large, diverse, school system with multi-member districts (such as in Anne Arundel County).   In a winner-take-all system, minority interests--whether they be ethnic, geographic, socio-economic, or otherwise--are less likely to get a chance at represenation than in a proportional system where voters express rank order preferences for candidates and minority interests can get a fairer chance of representation.  Fairness, by the way, is a precise, technical term.  It refers to the degree of correspondence between the preferences of voters and candidates elected to office.  The higher the correspondence, the fairer the election (for a discussion of these concepts, see www.Fairvote.org).  The way the electoral issue has so far been framed, only an appointed system can ensure a diverse school board with representation of minority interests.  But that is based on an incorrect assumption that equates winner-take-all with all electoral systems. 


Still, I don't think even a conventional proportional electoral system is the best system.  As you may know, I favor a "citizens assembly" based system; that is, a statistically representative version of the school board nomination convention that we already have. 


But whatever type of electoral system  you might ultimately prefer shouldn't determine whether you support this petition.  The value of this petition, from my perspective, is that it would force a public debate on HB1114's proposed system of selecting school board members.  That's a debate the legislature should have had but didn't. 


After all, our leaders have repeatedly said that passing HB1114 was one of their most important accomplishments during the last legislative sesssion.   Given this apparent consensus about the bill's importance, a full and open public airing of the issues was the democratically appropriate course of action.  Since our leaders abrogated their democratic responsibility to hold such a debate, I support this petititon because it will force such a debate.  At the end of that debate, the public might decide that the legislature actually did its due diligence and picked the best feasible alternative.  But I don't think we can know that until both the legislators and public have exposed themselves to some divergent points of view. 


Thus, I plan to sign this petition and would encourage you to sign it, too.    Senators Greenip and Simonaire have put together an excellent action center for this purpose.  I'd encourage you to look at it if you want to support their petition.


Thursday, May 3, 2007

Petition drive from senators Greenip and Simonaire to place the school board reform legislation on the ballot for the 2008 election

From: Senator Janet Greenip [mailto:Janet.Greenip@senate.state.md.us]
Sent: Thursday, May 03, 2007 10:48 AM
To: Janet.Greenip@senate.state.md.us
Subject: Anne Arundel County Elected School Board Petition Drive

Dear Friend,

During this past session, I co-sponsored SB 28 (sponsored by Senator Bryan Simonaire) which would have change the Anne Arundel County Board of Education to an elected board beginning in 2010. Despite my strong support and endorsement for this overdue change in how school board members are selected, this important bill did not receive a favorable report in the Anne Arundel County delegation.

Instead of passing our bill, the Anne Arundel Legislative Delegations passed HB 1114, a bill which puts the selection of the School Board into the hands of a few people. Under current law, the Governor appoints members that are nominated by the Nominating Convention. This new legislation requires the Governor to choose a nominee from a select Commission. The Governor appoints 5 of the 11 members of this new commission, the County Executive appoints one and there are five spots reserved for the Teacher’s Association, one of Anne Arundel County’s Chambers of Commerce, Anne Arundel Community College Board of Trustees, Association of Education Leaders, and the Anne Arundel Parent-Teacher Association. These appointed school board members will only face a “yes or no” vote for continuance in office after they are in place. There is no real electoral say in who represents us and our children on the county school board.

Because of this, concerned citizens of Anne Arundel County, led by Senator Simonaire and myself, are collecting signatures on a petition to place HB 1114 on the ballot for the 2008 election. We want to overturn this legislation and go back to work to get an Elected School Board. We need to give the taxpayers of Anne Arundel County a real say in who is on the school board.

Attached are the two sides of the petition document that must be printed on one piece of paper. All signatures must be from Anne Arundel County voters. Do not sign and date the bottom of the page until you are ready to send it in. If these instructions are not followed all signatures on that sheet will be invalid. Print as many as you would like and return the signed petitions sheets to Senator Bryan Simonaire’s office, information listed below.

We need nearly 19,000 Anne Arundel resident signatures by June 20th, but must also have 10,000 by May 23rd. If you can return them as you fill them it will give us an idea of our progress and how much further we have to go.

Mail petitions to:

Senator Bryan Simonaire
Miller Senate Office Building, Room 401
11 Bladen St.
Annapolis, MD 21401

Also, please visit http://www.voteonschoolboard.com/ for information and to volunteer for door-to-door and shopping center efforts.

Thank you for your time. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns.


Janet Greenip
Senator, Legislative District 33

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Post mortem on the school board reform legislation

On April 9, the school board reform bill passed through the legislature with virtually no opposition.   Capturing what I believe was the general sentiment of the Anne Arundel delegation to the General Assembly, the Capital reported that the Speaker of the Assembly, Mike Busch, described the bill's passage as "monumental."  Senator Ed DeGrange, in the same Capital story, summed it up differently but to the same effect: "We won't have to talk about [school board reform] for another 20 years."  


Clearly, the Anne Arundel delegation believed this  school board bill was one of the legislature’s most important accomplishments during the session.  But what amazes me is that there was virtually no public forum to debate it in the legislature or in the newspapers.   Yes, there had been substantial public debate over the years about the merits of elected and appointed school boards.  But for this particular proposal, which, I believe, is a radical departure from the various systems used to select school boards in any of the more than 14,000 other school boards in the United States, there was virtually no public deliberation.  It is true that the Capital  gave it tremendous coverage--perhaps more coverage than anything else the legislature did this session--but it was overwhelmingly horse race coverage (the odds of the bill making it through the legislature), not substantive coverage (the pros and cons of the legislation).


Going into the home stretch, many bills often get their most intense public scrutiny.  But that was not the pattern here. The strategy of the bill's supporters was very simple and effective.  The message was this bill is a "done deal" and it has overwhelming support, so "don't bother me with the details."   When Alan Friedman, Director of Governmental Relations for County Executive Leopold, made the appeal for passage of the amended bill at the sponsor-only public hearing for SB324, he kept his message correspondingly simple and,in a mere sentence or two, told the assembled delegates of the overwhelming support for the bill.  That was all they needed to hear before giving it the go ahead.


My guess is that it will not take long for the public to understand the radical nature of the school board reform the General Assembly has passed but that it will take at least ten years and perhaps as many as twenty for the public to develop a consensus about the reform's effects.  My own prediction is that in its early years the new system will work pretty well.  The press will give it close scrutiny, and its backers will be on their best behavior.  However, over time, the selection process will increasingly become dominated by backroom politics and lose democratic legitimacy in the eyes of the public. 


At the end of the day, the bill's passage can best be explained by the fact that the status quo system of selecting school board members had virtually no defenders, so the debate boiled down to what reform could get enough votes for passage.   The effort focused on getting the votes, not carefully thinking through all the implications of what was being proposed. 


Perhaps my biggest surprise was the leadership's visceral attack on the position of the student member of the board at the 11th hour--literally moments before the final House vote for the bill--and with no publicly stated explanation, let alone public debate about this major change.    (For a discussion of the policy merits of this amendment, see my last post and the letter to the Anne Arundel Delegation from the previous two student members of the board.)   When, shortly before Senate passage of the amended bill,  I asked the leadership to explain its momentous break with past precedent, all I got by way of an explanation was a scornful look saying "give me a break" and the verbal observation that no one in the delegation had objected to the change.    In other words, the reasons for it were self-evident.    


Of course, there were other provisions in this bill that were similarly  considered "self-evident" and that  in coming years, I can pretty safely predict, will be considered controversial  decisions.  That's hardly an unusual prediction when it comes to the after effects of the me-too frenzy that often accompanies the passage of legislation.  Only time will tell whether I'm right or wrong.


Now, barring an unexpected development, I intend this to be my last post on school board reform.  My guess is that when the Nominating Commission is constituted there will be unexpected problems and it may, of necessity, assume unexpected powers to help solve them.  At that point, I might wade into these waters once again.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

In last minute decision, House amends school board reform bill to undercut position of student member of the board; hearing on amended bill set for 1pm tomorrow

In the last few weeks, legislation on school board reform moved quickly. On Thursday, March 22, the Senate approved SB324 and the House held a public hearing on HB1114. On Saturday, March 24, an amendment to the House bill was introduced, and then on Monday, March 26, an amendment to that amendment was introduced, followed immediately by a vote and passage of the bill.

The big surprise was the House amendments to HB1114, including the amendment of the amendment. The two major changes in the first amendment were the addition of a ninth member to the school board (the current school board has eight members) and increased compensation for all school board members. The major change in the amendment to the initial amendment was that the student school board member would not receive compensation and thus henceforth be treated differently from all the other school board members. All the amendments were to be effective beginning with the school board taking office in 2008 (the next school board takes office July 1, 2007).

The two major changes contained in the first amendment were, in my opinion, excellent. I give Andy Lang a lot of credit for the first one, as he pointed out to the delegation the unexpected problems associated with retaining an eight member board with the proposed new school board selection system.

The second amendment to give school board members compensation ($12,000 for regular board members; $14,000 for the board president) should also, in my opinion, be applauded. In many spheres of life we accept the maxim that you get what you pay for. Only a small fraction of people have been willing to apply that maxim to school boards, especially so in Anne Arundel County where the Capital reports that of the 24 counties in Maryland only three, including Anne Arundel, don’t pay school board members a salary.

What are the consequences of asking school board members to devote a huge amount of time to school board affairs and then not paying them? Obviously, the effects are hard to pin down, partly because no rational school board member would ever admit that compensation rather than love of kids might influence his or her behavior. Still, there are a few things that can be said. One is that not paying school board members restricts the type of person who can serve on a school board. The democratic vision of school board members is that they would be lay people broadly representative of the public. But if lower income working people are prevented from serving on such a board, the result is a highly skewed pool of individuals from which school board members can be drawn.

A second likelihood is that school members who aren’t paid will tend to be lazier. Consider the school board’s judicial function as a court of last appeal for student/parent grievances. Many members of the public don’t know that this is a major and very time consuming function of the board. School board members may have to rule on as many as five student/parent grievances a month. They are given this power because there is no other entity in the school system with the same democratic legitimacy that allows it to act as a court of last resort. The public doesn’t know about these grievances because they are heard in private, school board members cannot talk about them in public, and the press therefore doesn’t cover them. In any other sphere of activity, how would you predict someone would behave faced with such incentives? Quite possibly, school board members behave that way, too.

The amendment to the amendment both reduced the compensation of school board members (from $12,000 to $6,000 for regular board members and from $14,000 to $8,000 for the board president). Most important, it excluded the student member of the board from receiving compensation. Although at first glance this might appear to be a minor and very reasonable amendment, it represents a huge policy change that sends a very strong message that the student member of the board is a second class member.

Until now, Anne Arundel County has stood out for having a student member of the board that was a full and equal voting member of the board of education. Now, without any public notice, discussion, or explanation, the House has created legislation to radically undercut this principle of equality. Since, as I have said, there was no public deliberation on the merits of creating this inequality, one can only surmise the reasons of those who pushed this amendment at the last moment.

One possibility is that the advocates of the amendment dislike the position of student member of the board and wanted to undercut it. But the most obvious explanation is the presumption that student members of the board don’t really need the money. This, of course, is an indirect way of saying that student members should be second class board members. But, taking this argument at face value, it is still of dubious merit. Indeed, one could argue that if anyone needs compensation, it’s the students. Most adults, for example, already have cars, so attending the countless school board meetings has a relatively small marginal transportation cost—just gas. In contrast, most students don’t already have their own car and cannot afford one. A student without a car and without compensation to purchase one would be unlikely to run for student member of the board, resulting in a highly skewed set of students who would run for student member of the board. Alternatively, a student member of the board could rely on parents to drive him or her to meetings, but this would be highly demeaning to the student (and position of student member of the board) even if the student belonged to one of the few lower income families with a non-working parent who could devote a large fraction of his or her time to chaperoning their child.

Why is a stay-at-home mom, retired worker, or wealthy professional more deserving of compensation than a student member of the board? I think the answer is by no means self-evident. Another theory might be that it costs more to become an adult board member than a student member of the board. But this overlooks the fact that many student members of the board have in fact devoted far more effort to achieving a leadership position than the adults who are appointed to the board. Some student members have spent four or five years gradually moving up the school government hierarchy to be considered a credible student member of the board. Many adult members, in contrast, have been appointed with only a small fraction of that upfront investment.

If the argument is that student members of the board are too young to use money responsibly, why not provide the money in the form of a college scholarship? A second benefit of the scholarship approach (or any type of compensation for serving on the school board) is that some student members of the board must work –as well as attend school like a regular student--in order to be able to attend college. Making such students sacrifice their chances of attending a good college as the price to serve on the school board doesn’t seem desirable to me.

Regardless of whether you think these amendments were good or bad, they certainly belie the widely promoted notion that the provisions in this bill were for years carefully debated and subject to public scrutiny. The Capital got it right when it observed: “the amendment came at the 11th hour, when there wasn’t much opportunity for public debate. Until that point, the issue was fixing a faulty system that occasionally puts people on the board who haven’t been vetted by a nominating convention.”

If the legislature had a rule that bills had to be available to the public for 72 hours before they were voted on, I wouldn’t have as much cause to complain about the process. What we know from abundant experience with legislatures is that legislation introduced and passed at the last minute tends to be full of both special interest and ill-considered provisions. Similarly, there was no good reason to rush through this legislation at the last second. There is an organization in DC called ReadtheBill.org devoted to just making sure that such bills cannot be rammed through the legislature at the last minute.

For those of you who have concerns about the amendments, all is not lost. Yes, passage of the basic school board reform package, even with all its warts (now partially cleaned up), is a foregone conclusion. But the House and Senate bills are now different and thus must be reconciled in conference committee or via another “public” hearing. If you’re upset that the amendment radically undercutting the position of the student member of the board was sprung on the public only a matter of minutes before bill passage (at least the first set of amendments was public for about 48 hours), you have at least one more chance to voice your concern.

If the bill is going to be changed in conference committee, you can let the conferees know of your concerns. You could, for example, ask them to withdraw the amendment so that there is time for public deliberation before undertaking such a radical measure.

However, the current thinking appears to be that the differences between the two bills are too trivial to deal with in conference committee. Thus, there is expected to be another sponsor only public hearing in the House and Senate to pass a bill agreeable to both chambers. The House hearing is scheduled for tomorrow, April 4, in the House Ways and Means Committee Room at 1pm. Although you cannot speak there, you can still submit formal written testimony (as long as it is submitted by noon) and catch the attention of your local delegate. Although, too, the hearing is being held in the House, the version of the bill that is listed for review is SB324, with the chair of the Senate Anne Arundel Delegation listed as the sponsor. Things are likely to move very quickly after that hearing as they did after the last hearing, so time is of the essence. It may yet be that the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee (Sheila E. Hixson) or the Chair of the Senate Education Health and Environmental Affairs Committee will create a conference committee and appoint conferees. But, as of now, that appears unlikely. Since the Chair of the Senate Anne Arundel Delegation is John Astle, it would appear that he would be the best person to contact between now and 1pm tomorrow. But I’m told that he might appoint someone else to speak and that this change might happen at the last minute.

To conclude on a more general note, the policy logic that has driven this bill is that the current school board selection system is awful. Therefore, any proposal to change it is an improvement, even if the change isn’t optimal. I’m not inclined to defend the school board nominating convention, except to say that awful as it is, I’m doubtful that the bill as passed is a significant improvement (this paraphrases Winston Churchill’s famous quip that democracy is an awful system of government, except for all the alternatives.)

The politics of the bill are actually quite brilliant. It builds on the great discontent with the status quo—discontent that is likely to significantly increase in the next 18 months as the public comes to understand the implications of the school system’s structural deficit for FY2008-9. People would then most likely look to this new system, which will be implemented when the current system is in most disrepute, as the savior to get us out of the mess.

But the bottom line is that this bill from A to Z undercuts the culture of citizenship and parental involvement that is important for the long-term health of a functioning democracy and our school system in particular. It’s already incredibly difficult for parents to have an impact on school system policy. The last thing we need to do is send yet another message that “the public is not wanted.” Of course, that is not how this bill has been framed for public consumption. But, as a political scientist and parent, that’s how I read it. I’m reminded of how Caesar came to power in Rome and destroyed the Republic. This change was not done in the name of elite control. It was done in the name of strengthening Republican institutions. Admittedly, we’re not talking about abolishing democracy here. But democracy comes in many degrees; it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. And the democratic enhancing features of this bill have clearly been oversold.

Other than leveraging the discrepancies between the House and Senate bills is there anything else that can be done at this point? I would suggest focusing on the ill-defined “public hearings” responsibilities of the new school board nominating commission. The tendency in this county has been to hold “public hearings” merely because they provide democratic legitimacy and therefore political cover for policy makers. The trick has too often been to convey the appearance of democratic legitimacy while, to the extent possible, actually disenfranchising the public so the backroom deals and insider players are not in fact constrained. The way the nominating commission is currently set up, I’d expect that political logic, especially after things settle down, to become the routine way of doing business. But it need not be. The public could insist that the commission hold “real” public meetings. For example, they could be televised and with open public participation. Members of the Commission could be subject to strict conflict of interest disclosure. And the backroom procedures of the Commission could be made as transparent as possible. Hopefully, too, members of the press could be encouraged to look at the credentials of the commissioners with the same rigor that we would expect them to cover the school board candidates themselves.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Report on today's House Ways and Means Committee hearing on HB1114

This afternoon I attended the House Ways and Means Committee hearing on HB1114, the bill to change Anne Arundel County’s system of appointing school board members. The event was labeled a “hearing” on the Maryland General Assembly website and on the agenda distributed at the event. But for those of you familiar with local hearings, it was a most peculiar hearing because no live public testimony was accepted and only the sponsor of the legislation was given the opportunity to testify. (We can only hope that the vaguely specified requirement in HB1114 that the Nominating Commission “shall hold at least two public hearings on the selection of nominees” is not similarly such a sham.)

The hearing was supposed to begin at 1pm but due to a delay in another meeting didn’t actually convene until 1:45pm. About half the delegate seats in the committee room were vacant. I was very lucky because HB1114 was the first bill on the agenda, which included 20 bills. Delegate Love, the lead sponsor of the bill and head of the Anne Arundel County delegation, was the only witness to speak. She started with the potent symbolism of noting that Alan Friedman, Director of Governmental Relations for County Executive Leopold, was sitting next to her. Friedman himself said nothing; his role was purely symbolic.

The testimony lasted all of about five minutes. Delegate Love summarized the bill by essentially paraphrasing its contents. That took maybe three minutes. Then there was one question from the Committee. A delegate wanted to know why the Maryland Senate last year rejected a very similar bill. Delegate Love replied that “the Senate passed it out earlier today, so we’re in a lovefest, no pun intended.” That was it. Delegate Love and Alan Friedman got up and left the room, and the Committee went on to attend other business.

There were only two statements submitted into the record for this hearing: my statement mostly opposing HB1114, and a one page statement from AFSCME 67 (the section of AFSCME representing several thousand non-professional school employees in AACPS) giving HB1114 a ringing endorsement. Unfortunately, AFSCME 67 did not post its statement on its website (at least when I last checked around 10:30 pm today), so I cannot provide a link to it. Basically, in a few paragraphs, it endorses HB1114 for creating an elected school board and empowering the public.

In addition, Alan Lang, the former chair of the School Board Nominating Convention, sent out a written statement criticizing HB1114 to the entire County delegation. His comments are elegant and very substantial (far more substantial than mine). Indeed, in their meticulous attention to the subtleties and implications of seemingly innocuous clauses, I would call them brilliant. If you are interested in discovering why this is a carelessly drafted bill (good for a first draft; lousy for a final draft), you need to read Alan’s comments.

It is, of course, hardly unusual to have poorly drafted legislation filled with ambiguities, inconsistencies, and vital omissions. For example, a primary role of federal agencies is to take such language drafted by Congress and through the rulemaking process develop workable regulations. The problem here is that there is no such agency. Presumably, the Nominating Commission would be forced to deal with many of the problems Alan has identified. But giving the Nominating Commission such dramatically enhanced powers is certainly an unintended consequence of the way this bill is drafted. This is work that legislators should take on themselves, or, at the very least, explicitly delegate to others.

On the whole, the hearing was pretty sad for me. According to standard legislative norms, major pieces of legislation—and this is major—should be subject to public deliberation. All the real deliberation on this bill, however, has been conducted behind closed doors. And, as reflected in Alan’s keen observations, I have yet to be convinced that even that deliberation reflected a careful consideration of the policy issues as opposed to an astute political calculation that this fresh approach to school board reform could break the political logjam, which it has.

This bill is being sold as a bipartisan done deal with no significant controversy attached to it. Delegate Love’s characterization that the bill was being treated like a “lovefest” was right on the money. But, in my experience, the momentum behind such bills, even when it seems unstoppable, can quickly change. All that needs to happen is that a credible grassroots effort raises some valid concerns and wins an outspoken and credible supporter within the political elites. Then the aura of inevitability can quickly dissipate. If you have any concerns about provisions in HB1114, this is the time to contact your delegate and let him or her know. If you wait until after the vote has already taken place, it will be too late.

My written statement for the hearing today before the Maryland House Ways and Means Committee on HB1114

My written statement for the hearing today before the Maryland House Ways and Means Committee on HB1114, the proposed reform of the school board selection process in Anne Arundel County.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

On Thursday (tomorrow) the House Ways and Means Committee will hold a public hearing on HB1114, the bill to reform the school board appointment process

On Thursday, March 22, the Maryland House of Delegates will be holding a hearing on HB1114, a bill proposing to change the school board selection process in Anne Arundel County, in Room 130 (the House Ways and Means Committee Room) of the Lowe House Office Building.  I encourage anyone with concerns about the provisions in this bill to both attend the hearing and submit written testimony for the public record.  Unfortunately, the Committee will not accept any live public testimony on this bill.  To submit written testimony for the public record, you must submit it in person in Room 131 of the Lowe House Office Building at least one hour before the hearing begins (that is, by noon on March 22). You should submit 35 copies.  The legislative session adjourns on April 9, 2007 (less than three weeks from today) and some version of this bill is widely expected to pass before it does so.  This may be your last and best chance to have your voice heard on this vital issue concerning the future of our public school system.




Sunday, March 18, 2007

Power Politics: Who Gains and Who Loses Under the School Board Reform Legislation?

With the support of Anne Arundel County's House and Senate leadership, County Executive, and local newspapers, passage of the legislature's school board reform bill has taken on an aura of inevitability.  Yes, before passage there may be some tinkering with the specific bill language.  But the consensus among political insiders is that the bill will pass and retain its signature features.
The question I want to address here is: "who gains and who loses with passage of this bill?"  Specifically, who gets more control over the school system's approximately $1 billion budget, 10,000 jobs, and 75,000 students?  This is a huge political plum; the only larger employer in the County may be Maryland's state government, control over which must be shared with close to 150 state legislators.
I think the clear political winner here is Anne Arundel County's legislators.  Currently, they are a bit player in the school board selection process.   That will change with the new selection process.  The governor has control over five of the eleven appointees to the School Board Nominating Commission.  But those appointees are to be selected from each of the five legislator districts within the County.  The Governor will be expected to consult with the local delegations and reward his legislative supporters with selection of a Nominating Commission member. 
The other major political winners are the private organizations, including representatives from the teachers, principals, Community College, PTAs, and Chamber of Commerce.    These groups are already major power players but now they will be given a formal seat at the table and a greater veto power over the choice of school board members. 
The situation of the county executive is a bit more ambiguous.   By getting one seat at the table, his formal power over the nominating process is substantially increased.  Until now, a county executive had no formal power over the nominating process and usually exercised minimal informal powers.  A county executive  with close personal relationships with Maryland legislators and knowledge of the legislative process (such as Anne Arundel's current county executive) will gain even more from this new process.  That power, however, is informal and will heavily depend on the particular county executive in power. 
The county executive's power over the governor's final selection process will probably stay about the same or slightly decrease.  County executives, especially those that support the governor, have traditionally had substantial informal power over the governor's final selection of school board member.  School board appointments are much more important to the county executive than governor, so it's a nice perk the governor can give to a supportive county executive.  The governor will most likely continue to do this under the new process, but both the governor and county executive will lose the power of selecting someone who wasn't vetted through a nominating entity such as the proposed Nominating Commission or the previous Nominating Convention.  However, with the governor in control of five of the eleven Nominating Commission members plus the chair of the Nominating Commission, this hardly would appear to be a significant loss of power.
So who will lose?  I think the most obvious losers are the CACs and activist parents who have traditionally dominated the School Board Nominating Convention.  The position of the CACs may seem a bit paradoxical because they are not allowed to send representatives to the School Board Nominating Convention or take any official actions supporting or opposing particular parents.  However, the type of activist, policy oriented parent involved in the CACs has historically been most likely to participate in the School Board Nominating Convention.    Their experience on the CACs have made them better Convention delegates.  Equally important, the CACs have been strengthened by the Nominating Convention.  Potential school board candidates often rise through the CACs, developing important relationships and policy insights helpful in a run for the school board.  The positive consequence is a significant and very healthy motivation for citizens to devote themselves to the important work of the CACs.  Many school board members, including Paul Rudolph and Michael Leahy, once led or were active in their local and/or countywide CACs. The latest example is Sam Georgiou, a former County CAC Chair and current school board candidate. 
Activist parents may, of course, lobby the governor, county executive, and representatives in the legislature for favored school board candidates.  But the result is a far more circuitous and less likely effective route to influence.  Whereas now activist parents can directly vote for candidates through the Nominating Convention, now they would be two steps removed from the selection of school board nominees because their influence would have to be filtered through both their elected representative and the person that representative appointed to select the school board nominees.
Why is this analysis helpful?  I think it sheds a lot of light on the sense of political inevitability associated with this bill.  The people who are voting on this bill can significantly enhance their own power and that of the key education power brokers by supporting its passage.   That is, it's a win-win for the key decision makers. 
Note that this analysis has nothing to do with the policy merits of the bill.   It's purely an analysis of the underlying power politics that help explain the bill's political momentum.  It's quite possible that the power politics and policy merits driving a particular bill are one and the same.  That, of course, would be democracy at its best.   You should decide for yourselves whether, in this particular case, there is such a compatibility.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Critique of the Washington Post's "spin" on the school board reform bill

Yesterday the Washington Post ran a news report on the school board reform passed by our Maryland Senate delegation and currently being considered by our House delegation. The headline reads: “School Board Bill: No Election, but more Say for the Public.” In case anybody didn’t get the message, the opening paragraph explains: “the measure would give the public more control over who is selected and how long they serve.”

The rest of the article, rather surprisingly, doesn’t provide a whit of evidence to back up the assertion in the title and in the opening paragraph. We learn about the politics of the bill—the recent Senate vote and the major players for and against it. But as to why it is so democratic, we can only infer that it is because under the present system the governor has the discretion not to pick one of the two nominees recommended by the School Board Nominating Convention.

So let me get this right. The Governor is a democratically elected official. Five of the eleven members of the proposed Nominating Commission are self-selected, unelected representatives of private organizations. In theory, the other six are appointed by elected officials (five from the Governor). But we know from experience with this type of Commission that there is great political pressure to act by consensus (usually, there is no political payoff in making a controversial decision), so the other five will, as a practical matter, have veto power. Thus, we are going to give this unelected body binding election authority while taking it away from an elected governor, and we are going to call this giving the public more control over who is elected.

At the same time, we are going to substitute approval voting for competitive elections/appointments. As I’ve explained elsewhere, approval voting is generally considered to be far less democratic than competitive elections. It is sometimes used with judicial appointments, but the reference point there is often lifetime appointment (e.g., appointment to the Supreme Court). As a practical matter, those elected by approval voting are rarely defeated, so the de facto term of a school board member would increase from five to ten years.

But the problems with approval voting go beyond that. School board members will learn that the only way they can be defeated after their first term is by doing something controversial. Thus, a rational school board member will do even more than presently to avoid controversy. But how does a successful drive get established to recall a school board member? Generally, only a narrow interest group has the motivation and means to pull off one of these recall elections. Thomas Wolfe, in the Bonfire of the Vanities, describes one of these recall elections but for a sitting judge. In Wolfe’s book, it is the best judge on the bench who makes a tough call and alienates a key group who gets the hook. And since, in the real world of politics (not the make believe world that typically is reported in local newspapers), you don’t go after someone for the real reason, you find the opponent’s weak point and then launch a campaign of slander. Alternatively, consider the ballot initiatives in California. They appear to be democratic, but in fact it is so difficult to get an item on the ballot and then win a majority vote that special interests overwhelmingly dominate the process.

In short, I don’t buy the argument that the school board reform bill likely to pass in this legislature gives the public more say. Whether or not you buy it, I hope you will agree that it is at least a controversial assertion that deserves public debate. This reporter, by giving us all spin and no argument, has failed in providing that debate.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Maryland Senate Passes Radical School Board Reform Measure

On Thursday, March 8, the Anne Arundel County delegation to the Maryland Senate passed, by a 3-2 vote, a bill incorporating the “judicial election” model of school board reform. The rest of the Senate, taking its cue from the County delegation, is expected to pass the legislation. The future success of the legislation now primarily depends on the House of Delegates.

I do not want to use this commentary to critique this legislation. I have done that elsewhere. My purpose here is to critique two claims made by the bill’s supporters and echoed in the press.

1) The Non-Radical Claim
The first claim is that the “judicial election” model is not a radical departure from past precedent and is somehow a compromise position in a policy rather than a political sense. For example, the Capital in its news story on Senate passage of the bill asserts that the proposal “seeks a middle ground between gubernatorial appointments and a fully-elected board.” This framing may have some political logic but is absurd from a policy standpoint. Consider the following points:

• There is not a single school or county council district in Maryland that uses this electoral method. To the best of my knowledge, it is similarly rare for school and municipal elections at a national level.

• By moving from a system of competitive elections to approval voting, the proposal extends the de facto term of a school board member from five to ten years. In theory, a school board member could be turned out in five years. But in practice, we know from approval voting in judicial elections that this is much less likely than if there is any type of competitive election (school board nominating conventions included). In other words, this proposal creates arguably the longest school board term of office in any of the more than 14,000 school districts in the U.S. If competitiveness of elections and likely duration of office is a measure of democratic accountability, then this electoral system would be arguably the least democratically accountable in the U.S.

• By moving from local to statewide selection of five of the eleven School Board Nominating Commission members, having another five of the eleven members selected by unelected representatives of private organizations, and having the chair of the Commission selected by a statewide office holder, the proposed electoral system moves radically away from the democratic principles of localism, political equality, and citizen sovereignty.

• By granting the School Board Nominating Commission huge powers over close to a $1 billion budget, 10,000 jobs, and 75,000 students, while making it democratically unaccountable to an unprecedented degree for a school board, it invites even more backroom politics than customarily seen in either appointed or electoral systems.

Having said the above, I don’t in any way want to imply that I’m against radical experiments in electoral design. In my view, America’s electoral systems are as antiquated as the horse and buggy transportation system that was dominant when they were originally conceived. But I am against radical innovations presented as modest compromises.

2) The Careful Deliberation Claim
The second claim I find disturbing is that the Anne Arundel County delegation and the public more generally has had a thorough discussion of the issues, so it’s time for a decision to be made. In the Capital’s formulation endorsing the Senate legislation: “this issue has already been debated far too long.”

It is true that the general issue of school board reform has been debated for a very long time and that no decision has been made. But it is not true that this particular electoral reform has been long debated. And it is even less true that this issue has been fully and thoughtfully debated in public. My guess is that less than one in fifty citizens of Anne Arundel County really understands the key provisions of this bill, let alone their implications (e.g., the de facto extension of school board terms and the shift in power from local to state decision makers and from public to private decision makers).

Even the public discussion of an elected school board, despite having taken place over many years, has been an intellectual embarrassment, revealing a parochialism and lack of sophistication that would be astounding if it wasn’t what we have come to so frequently expect from our political elites, including the press, on which we are so dependent for our information. No one should assume that the endless repetition of common sense sound bites is necessarily the result of careful reflection and good judgment.

To take just one example, it is often assumed that the natural state of affairs for any elected official, including a school board member, is to have authority to raise taxes. But this is a misleading assumption. The American system of government is based on checks and balances. Usually, only one of the three branches of government is granted taxing authority (e.g., it is considered desirable to separate administrative from taxing powers). Even elected legislative bodies often don’t have taxing authority, as is witnessed by the profusion of elected planning, library, and other local boards throughout the United States (in Anne Arundel County, these types of boards are appointed rather than elected). And even when legislative bodies are granted some taxing authority, it is often incomplete, requiring either the approval of another body (e.g., a school board may need approval of a proposed tax increase from a town council) or the approval of the taxpayers (e.g., tax increases may only be passed via referendum).

In sum, the proposal on the table is both radical in conception and has been rushed to a vote with minimal public deliberation. That doesn’t necessarily entail that the proposal is a bad idea. But it should give all of us—public, press, and politicians—pause. For the House of Delegates to now follow the Senate’s example and act without a full and public debate would be rash and should not be applauded.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Recent letters-to-the-editor

Letters to the Editor: Maryland Gazette, March 3, 2007, p. A8

School board
It seems that County Executive John Leopold and some of our state delegates have no confidence in the ability of their constituents. It seems that the citizens, after waiting for decades for a better process, may be getting a selected school board instead of an elected school board. More than 90 percent of the school boards in the United States are elected. Proposing a selected school board is an insult to the intelligence of the citizens of this great county.


Your say: Which school board system do you prefer, elected or appointed? The Maryland Gazette, March 3, 2007, p. A8

To me, it has always defied any democratic principle why Anne Arundel County citizens allow the voters of Montgomery, Prince George's and the city of Baltimore to essentially pick their Board of Education members, and superintendent as well for that matter. Why then would the good citizens have any reasonable expectation of accountability from an organization they have no say in how it is composed? Local residents are expected to financially support the county educational system through taxes and fees, but have zero say in the ultimate determination of who is responsible for their children and young adults education. Absolutely no member of the Anne Arundel County public school system is selected, appointed or anointed by anyone elected solely by the voters of Anne Arundel County. This goes against all concepts of a democratic society and is absolutely wrong.

--DAVE DYKE Pasadena

(County Executive John) Leopold's plan (to create a commission that would name candidates for the governor's choice) is much more preferred. All one has to do is look at the unhappy staff working under the superintendant chosen by and elected board in Montgomery County.


I believe an elected school board has merit. I would like to learn more about the referendum (proposed by state Sen. Bryan Simonaire) and read the details of how that would be implemented, such as length of terms, candidate requirements, etc. Having an elected school board versus an appointed board would help to isolate the board from political influences and pressures and open the positions to a more favorable forum for selection.

--BEN WINSTEAD Glen Burnie

I don't see anything wrong with the people submitting names for the job, but the final says has to be in the hands of the governor. This way it makes someone accountable for their actions. All one has to do is look at the shame our elected officials are pulling in Annapolis. At the next election they will all say they didn't want to raise taxes. It was the other guy. When will the people of this state understand a one party system doesn't help anyone but the people in power.


I am in favor of Bryan Simonaire's idea to have an elected school board. I feel that it is important to let the people have their say, and have elected officials, rather than appointed members.

--LISA DUNHAM Glen Burnie

Why on earth should the governor be appointing local school board members? Does the president appoint the school board members of Washington, D.C.? Whether they're chosen from a list of suggestions, (as now) or from a list with no alternatives, (as Mr. Leopold supports) the governor has no business in such local affairs. School board members must be accountable to the families and taxpayers they serve. Elections of board members along county district lines is the best way to ensure their full accountability to all the people of Anne Arundel county, and not just the Severna Park elite. Bring on that referendum.


Letters to the Editor: The Capital, February 28, 2007, p. A10

School board
It seems that County Executive John Leopold and some of our state delegates have no confidence in the ability of their constituents. It seems that the citizens, after waiting for decades for a better process, may be getting a selected school board instead of an elected school board. More than 90 percent of the school boards in the United States are elected. Proposing a selected school board is an insult to the intelligence of the citizens of this great county.


Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Commentary advocating SB 28 by State Senator Brian Simona

Guest column: Wanted: A voice, not a commission, The Maryland Gazette, February 28, 2007, State Senator Brian Simonaire, p. A10

There is a raging debate being discussed in Annapolis and your voice is urgently needed.

Most people agree that the current school board selection process has major problems. As a result, two bills have been filed in the General Assembly attempting to remedy the situation.

One bill asserts that our citizens deserve a direct voice in government through an elected school board; whereas, the other bill appoints an elite commission to replace the direct voice of the people.

These are completely different approaches: One empowers the people and the other empowers a select few.

I believe in creating legislation that gives citizens a greater say in their local government; therefore, I have sponsored Senate Bill 28 that would create an elected school board with the full voice and approval of the people.

If SB 28 were signed into law this year, the bill would require the voters to approve or reject the elected school board proposal during the next election. Upon receiving a favorable majority vote, a staggered election process as defined by SB 28 would follow to ensure a smooth transition.

The elected school board would consist of eight members, one representative elected from each of the seven councilmanic districts and one student representative.

Clearly the trend is moving towards elected school boards, because people want a voice in the process and the system is working.

Of all the school boards in America, more than 90 percent are elected boards. Seventy-five percent of Maryland's counties are elected. Considering that many more counties are proposing elected boards this year, Anne Arundel County is behind the times in this area and out of touch with its citizens.

SB 28 has overwhelming, growing and broad support from individuals and organizations within Anne Arundel County, such as, the teachers association, the PTA with over 15,000 members, both the chairman and vice chairman of our County Council, the League of Women voters and even members of the appointed school board.

As the Anne Arundel County delegation hears testimony regarding these bills, they must answer one fundamental question: "Do the people of Anne Arundel County deserve a direct voice in the educational process?"

The elected school board bill emphatically shouts, "Yes, restore the voice of the people!"

Conversely, an appointed commission whispers, "No, the average citizen is better served by the voice of a select few."

In addition to restoring the direct voice of the people, SB 28 would also provide local accountability to those who wish to serve the educational needs of our community members.

With little or no local accountability, board members have the ability to propose dramatic increases or decreases in the educational budget. They can also call for an adjustment in tax revenues as it relates to their proposed budget request.

With our school board members having such influence over our local educational system, it is imperative that the citizens have the corresponding ability to hold them accountable for their actions.

Lastly, SB 28 is the only proposal that guarantees equal representation within the county. And this is extremely important considering that we currently have several councilmanic districts with zero representation on our school board.

I am convinced an elected school board would better serve the needs of the community, because the people have a direct voice in the process, the school board members are held locally accountable and there is equal representation within our county.

There will always be those who find reasons not to change, or say that we can not accomplish certain goals. However, there is a new playing field in the Anne Arundel county delegation with nearly 50 percent turnover from the last election. We have a tremendous opportunity to end the deadlock of the last 20 years.

I believe your voice is urgently needed in local government and that is why I sponsored SB 28. Now it is up to our senators and delegates to answer one simple question, "Do the people of Anne Arundel County deserve a direct voice in the educational process?"

State Sen. Brian Simonaire, R-Pasadena, represents District 31.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Animation describing some of the various ways an electoral system can be set up

Here is a fun animation that describes some of the different types of electoral systems. Ontario, Canada is currently conducting a citizens assembly to select a new electoral system for the province. This was prepared as a general educational tool for members of the assembly and the general public. In Anne Arundel County, we use the single member plurality vote system to elect our County Council. This is also the system used in the vast majority of elections in the U.S. and in former British colonies. My preferred electoral system is the single transferable vote (also known as instant runoff voting), which is closest to what this animation calls AV.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Capital editorial endorses legislation for an appointed school board

The Capital has endorsed the School Board Nominating Commission bill being pushed by a broad cross section of the County's leadership. I wonder: did the Capital even read the bill, let alone carefully think through the implications of its various clauses? I doubt it very much.

It’s funny, but every once in a while political elites get way out of touch with the public. A famous example was Clinton’s nomination of Zoe Baird to be Attorney General. The news got out that Zoe Baird hadn’t paid the payroll taxes on her baby sitter’s wages. This didn’t bother the elites because none of them paid payroll taxes for their baby sitters either. But it certainly bothered average Americans who expected the U.S. Attorney General, who upholds U.S. laws, to follow them herself. Eventually, the nomination had to be withdrawn.

What’s going on here? The Capital news and editorial staff, like the rest of us, rely heavily on elite cues. If there appears to be broad elite consensus for a particular course of action, that's all the information they need. Such reliance on elite cues may be very efficient in saving the Capital time and money. But such laziness, when broadly distributed among news and political elites, can lead to a culture of the blind leading the blind, with the result that no one is minding the store. That’s what I believe is going on here.

Some vital decisions, such as designing electoral systems, are complex and confusing yet too important for the public (and the press) to blindly trust their elected leaders. This issue is one of them.

For the Capital's endorsement of the appointed school board legislation, click here.
For my critique of this proposal, click here.

Publication: Capital
Date: February 16, 2007
Title: Our say:Delegation should pass Leopold's school board plan

Have you ever been sure that the county's General Assembly delegation would change the way Anne Arundel County school board members are selected? Then you know how Charlie Brown feels every time he tries to kick that football propped up by Lucy.

The anti-hero of the "Peanuts" comic strip always winds up on his back when the ball is yanked away. And anyone who thinks the current selection process is a mess always winds up frustrated when the delegation fails to reach consensus on a new system.

It may be different this year. Perhaps. We'll believe it when the governor signs the legislation.

County Executive John Leopold is pushing a compromise that almost succeeded last year, when it passed the House of Delegates 132-5 but was rejected by the county's Senate delegation, 3-2.

This year the legislation - introduced by state Sen. John Astle - seems to have an even stronger chance, and is backed by the county's chamber of commerce and its teachers association.

The bill would eliminate the glaring flaw in the current procedure: the fact that the governor doesn't have to pick any of the candidates painstakingly vetted by the nominating conventions.

Under the new system, an 11-person nominating commission - its members selected by the governor, the county executive and organizations with a stake in education - would draw up a list of nominees from which the governor would have to make his choice.

The system would allow input from county voters - who would decide whether board members get second terms - without making the board seats fully elective offices forever closed to anyone who doesn't want to campaign. This county has had some excellent school board members who did not have a political bone in their bodies.

The plan, in short, would be a major improvement - although it won't satisfy the staunchest advocates of an elected school board. Two of the county's state senators, Bryan Simonaire and Janet Greenip, are co-sponsoring a bill that would put the issue of an elected board on the 2008 general election ballot.

Elected school boards are the rule nationally, although many of them have some sort of taxing authority. The main powers of government - the ones that should stay in the hands of elected officials - are deciding how to gather money from the taxpayers and how to spend it. Setting up a dependent group of elected officials with no final authority over taxes or budgeting - a group that would always defer on these crucial matters to the county executive and the County Council - would really accomplish little, even if it gives voters the impression that they have gained more control over the schools.

A referendum on an elected board would be preferable to the status quo - but the proposal from Mr. Leopold and Mr. Astle is quicker, more practical and easier to pass. We're hoping that this year the football finally gets kicked.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Critique of SB 324

On January 31, 2007 the chair of the Anne Arundel County senate delegation submitted a bill (SB 324) to reform the current method of selecting school board members in Anne Arundel County. Of the various bills introduced to reform the school board electoral system (see the right column of this blog for details), this bill is widely expected to have the most political support within the County delegation and thus have the greatest chance of passage.

The key features of the bill are:

1) An eleven person School Board Nominating Commission recommends two school board candidates to the governor for every school board opening.

2) The eleven members of the Commission are selected as follows:
a) The Governor appoints five.
b) The Anne Arundel County Executive appoints one.
c) The Anne Arundel Teachers Association (teachers’ union) appoints one.
d) The Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce Appoints one.
e) The Anne Arundel County Council of PTAs appoints one.
f) The Anne Arundel Community College’s Board of Trustees appoints one.
g) The Association of Educational Leaders (principals’ union) appoints one.

3) As is the case today, school board members may serve up to two 5 year terms. After the first term, a school board member will automatically be granted a second term unless recalled by Anne Arundel County voters at the next general election.

4) The Commission is to hold “two public hearings” before making its final recommendations to the governor.

To the extent that the members of the Nominating Commission are representative of the public, this is a highly appealing electoral system. But how likely is that that the eleven members of the Commission will be broadly representative of the public interest? I think it is highly unlikely.

Take the governor, who will appoint roughly half the Commission, including the Commission’s chair. Granting someone the opportunity to serve on such a Commission would be a great way for the governor (or the county executive) to pay back a political supporter. Serving on the Commission would be a plum patronage position because it is highly prestigious and controls close to a $1 billion budget and some 10,000 jobs. When all the back room dealing was done, the interests of parents and students might very well be given short shrift.

A big danger of such a Commission is that it would operate on the basis of consensus. An appointed body that wants to avoid public controversy and scrutiny has a strong incentive to operate by consensus. But consensus decision making is highly undemocratic because it grants small minorities veto power. A governor who wanted to use the Commission to reward political supporters would probably appoint a chair who was a good-ole-boy and operate the Commission so as to minimize controversy. The result would be a lot of pressure to operate by consensus. We’ve seen this countless times before in Anne Arundel County government. There is little reason to believe this time would be different.

One curiosity is why a PTA but not a CAC representative is appointed to the Commission. In Maryland, CACs were created to take over the policy functions traditionally associated with PTAs. In my opinion, a CAC representative would be much more appropriate to serve on this type of Commission.

An unstated consequence of this type of electoral system is longer school board member tenures. Experience demonstrates that approval voting, as opposed to competitive elections, results in significantly less electoral turnover. For example, where judges are put on the ballot on an approval basis, they are rarely if ever driven out of office. In effect, then, the term of a school board member would be increased from five to ten years. This is surely not a change that would enhance democratic accountability.

Another quirk of this re-election system is that the first term of a school board member wouldn’t exactly end after five years because general elections in Maryland only take place every two years. So, as I read this bill, if a board member’s term expired in an off-election year, the approval vote wouldn’t come until the sixth year of his or her term.

Some of the problems with this type of appointed commission can be mitigated by taking some basic democratic precautions. Unfortunately, this draft of the bill lacks such precautions. The bill says that the Commission will hold “two public hearings” before making recommendations to the governor. But the scope and nature of those public hearings is left unspecified. It would be very easy for those public hearings to devolve into pro forma events merely designed to provide political cover for the Commission members.

The Commission should be designated as a public body under an obligation to follow the strictest possible interpretation of the State’s Public Records Act and Open Meeting Act. But even that isn’t enough. The two so-called “public hearings” of the commission should be broadcast on the County’s government access TV station and permanently stored on the County’s online video server for later public scrutiny. This type of public record will lessen the Commission’s incentive to engage in the type of pseudo public hearings that are so endemic in local government today. Mistakes and hidden agendas that are not apparent at the time the Commission is making its decisions will have a chance to later be exposed, thus keeping the process honest and accountable.

Commission members should also be required to disclose potential conflicts of interest, such as financial dealings with their political patron, that might compromise their independence. For example, a commissioner appointed by the governor who does substantial business with the state or has contributed time or money to the governor’s political campaigns should be required to disclose that information.

How does this method of selecting school board members improve on the status quo? There may be a good answer to this question. But I have not yet heard the advocates for this bill provide it. Until then, their half-baked bill should be viewed as a warning sign: the proposed cure may be worse than the disease.