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.

No comments: