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.