Sunday, April 13, 2008

Reflections on key developments concerning the School Board Nominating Commission since its March 25 public meeting

The following comments concerning the School Board Nominating Commission (SBNC) commence with its March 25 meeting and end with its April 10 press release. These comments include actions taken by the SBNC and actions taken by the School Board and General Assembly with regard to the SBNC.

On Monday April 14 at 7:00 p.m., the SBNC will hold its first public hearing broadcast live on Anne Arundel County Government Television.

This may be my last report and analysis of the SBNC—at least for 2008. With the coming SBNC hearings being heavily promoted and televised, I feel I can now comfortably fade out of the picture. One exception is if a major and unpublicized procedural issue arises. Another exception is my series of complaints and the SBNC's responses to those complaints filed with the Maryland Open Meetings Act Compliance Board. I may be one of the few people who consider such procedural issues a big deal; my hope is that those appointed to interpret and enforce the Open Meetings Act will take their responsibilities seriously.

March 19—Public notice of March 25 SBNC public meeting

On March 20 the SBNC sent out a press release announcing its next public meeting, scheduled for March 25. The website lists the date of the press release as March 19. Since SBNC’s bylaws state that public notice is to be sent out ten days before a public meeting, SBNC’s notice violated its own bylaws

Shortly before its March 25 meeting and in response to my complaint filed with Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board, the SBNC posted the minutes of its two meetings held on January 23 and January 30. Both meetings were held in secret and in violation of Maryland’s Open Meetings Act. Prior to this posting, I was unaware that in fact two meetings were held illegally. The only Open Meetings Act violation I had known about was the January 23rd meeting. The website with the posted minutes makes no mention that the two meetings were held illegally.

March 25—SBNC public Meeting

On March 25, the SBNC held a public meeting to receive public testimony from three invited panelists on the proper role and desirable skills of school board members.

Other than a reporter from the Capital, I was the only audience member from Anne Arundel County present. In addition, there were three individuals from another County who were curious about the SBNC method of nominating school board candidates. Senator Simonaire’s aide also attended.

The panelists were Kitty Blumsack with the Maryland Association of Boards of Education; Penny Cantwell with CommerceFirst Bank of Annapolis; and Dr. Pamela Brown, Executive Director of Leadership Anne Arundel. The latter two were clearly chosen to serve, in part, as ambassadors from the business community. In a press release after the meeting, the SBNC summarized the testimony as follows: “Four overarching points were constants in all the testimony given to the Commission regarding what to look for when attracting, reviewing, and selecting potential Board members for appointment: a commitment to serve; an ability to listen to all sides; strong interpersonal and analytical skills; and a recognition that the proper role of Board members is to focus on policy making and strategic planning not school system operations.” Then it added a fifth point: “Another important recommendation from the panel related to remaining cognizant of the role that the business community can play in the strengthening of not only the Board of Education, but the school system itself.”

I don’t disagree that all the points in the summary were made by the witnesses. But there is one major theme that doesn’t appear in the summary. That theme is that the SBNC wants to appoint someone with business credentials who can credibly talk the talk of efficiency and accountability. The panelists emphatically stated--if abstractly and without relation to anything in particular--that the public wants board members who will use public resources efficiently. Members of the SBNC strongly echoed this theme—again abstractly--during the question and answer time.

My guess is that the SBNC will go out of its way to appoint one or more nominees who can be presented to the public as having business skills. This makes political sense. The school board is facing a huge structural deficit. The insiders know that a tsunami of pain is heading in the direction of parents. They also know that to get a tax increase passed to address the expected pain, it will be necessary to create the impression that the school board runs a tight ship. By the time budget reality finally begins to kick in with the public during May and June (after the County Council refuses to fully fund the school system’s structural deficit), picking someone with business credentials should be politically popular with just about everybody.

Do business people make better school board members? It’s hard to really answer this question because very few accomplished business people run for school board seats. And those who do run, win, and attempt to apply their business acumen often quit after one term, disillusioned with the difficulty of making any meaningful changes in the system. This doesn’t mean that a lot of business people don’t run and win, often on a platform including vague language of accountability and efficient use of taxpayer resources. But how do they actually perform once in office? Does all their rhetoric translate into meaningful action?

In my experience, having observed business people on school boards in many different communities, the answer is surprisingly “no.” People with business credentials who run for the school board are usually smart enough to recognize that the only political payoff is to talk like a business person, not act like one. If not, it usually doesn’t take them long to learn better.

So if business people rarely choose to use the skills for which they are lauded, does that make them bad school board members? The question, then, largely becomes one of motives. My guess is that business people are no more likely than other board members—and perhaps less so--to deep down in their bones really care about education. Many are on the board primarily to create visibility for themselves, either because it helps their business or political careers. For example, the last thing a community bank wants is to have one of its executives stir up controversy. If that executive is visible in the community in an uncontroversial authoritative way, then great, it’s good for business; the business person cum school board member becomes a rainmaker. Similarly, a business person using the school board to launch a political career will have no interest in stirring up any hornet nests. If a school maintenance department is incompetent, if public school construction costs twice as much as in the private sector (and results in ugly, factorylike buildings that endure for decades), and if making commitments creating a long-term structural deficit won’t create a political backlash during their term of office, their political philosophy is most likely to be “let sleeping dogs lie.” Why follow their business principles if the only result will be to stir up trouble that cannot help them achieve their true ambitions?

In America, we have created school boards constituted by lay people. The American public deeply mistrusts experts as democratic representatives because it understands that all the expertise in the world is of no use if the expert has no incentive to use his expertise to represent the public interest. That’s why a passionate, committed mom often makes a better school board member than a business person.

King Solomon, renowned for his wisdom, once faced a dispute between two women who each claimed the same baby as her own. To resolve the dispute, King Solomon ruled that he would cut the baby in half and give half to each woman. One of the women then immediately cried that she would give up the child. King Solomon knew that that was the person who truly cared about the child and therefore must be the true mother. School board members are like the moms; they all profess from morning to night that concern for the kids is all that drives them. In my experience, the school board business person is much more likely to be the fake mom.

Along these lines, I thought it was humorous when the head of the administrators’ union asked the three panelists: if business skills are important in a school board member, then shouldn’t we get rid of the student member of the board? This was funny because, when someone is a school board member negotiating with the administrators’ union, one doesn’t think of the administrators’ union, to put it mildly, as representing business values. I will be curious to see if the administrators’ union, during the SBNC’s public hearings, asks any hard nosed business questions of the school board candidates. If they did, I would be frankly shocked.

Quite surprisingly, the union leader’s question turned the tide of the discussion on business skills. All three panelists jumped to the defense of student members of the board, arguing that a good board is made up of people with a diverse set of skills and interests and that, in their experience, student members of the board made valuable contributions to school boards and often more so than their adult counterparts. More generally, the panelists reiterated that diverse skills, not just business skills, should be valued in a board.

Near the end of the meeting, SBNC’s Chair asked if there were any questions from the audience. I raised my hand and observed that the SBNC had violated its own bylaws when it sent out its notice for this meeting less than the 10 days required in its bylaws. I then asked how the SBNC would respond to this violation and if there was any penalty when the Chair violated the SBNC’s bylaws? The Chair responded that he simply does the best he can and there is no penalty when the bylaws are violated. I thought that, under the circumstances, this was a good answer. But it was alarming that not a single member of the SBNC said they were in any way upset by the violation and would try to make sure that it wouldn’t happen again.

My overall assessment, admittedly a cynical one, is that what the members of the SBNC got from this meeting is a set of vocabulary to describe how they should frame their final selection criteria. The words used at this hearing will be the types of words they will use to justify their final decisions to the public. But these words will mostly be make-believe; they will have little or no relationship to the negotiation of interests that will go on in the backrooms.

Corresponding to the make-believe aspect of the meeting, the elephant in the room during the discussion was the importance of political skills in a school board member. Nobody mentioned the importance of such skills. It never came up. But from my observations and from having read quite a bit about school board politics, political skills are essential in a school board member. There is an incredible amount of make-believe that goes along with being a successful school board member. Indeed, sometimes I think that, like the famous tale of the emperor’s clothes, the most important skill in a school board member is to regress to first grade math skills so as to avoid having to acknowledge the budget math self-evident even to simpletons. Perhaps in this deeper sense the political values reflected in this meeting, though never openly stated, reflected the true skills that go into becoming a successful school board member.

April 2—School Board Vote on HB1607 and Senate hearing on HB1607

On the morning of April 2, the school board voted unanimously (8-0) that the student member should be paid the same as the other members of the School Board. School Board member Mike Leahy then went to the same day Senate hearing on HB1607 and reported the result of the School Board’s vote. This apparently caused Anne Arundel County Delegation Chair Maryann Love and House Speaker Mike Busch to be furious. They were caught totally unprepared by both the School Board’s vote and Mike Leahy’s testimony reporting it. In the end, however, the School Board vote made no difference. On April 5, late in the night and only minutes before the end of the General Assembly’s session for 2008, the bill sailed through the Senate without amendments and ready for the Governor’s signature.

Why the hectic rush near the end of the session? One classic reason to rush last minute business is to make sure that opponents don’t have time to mobilize. In this case, however, there was an additional reason. The legislation setting up the SBNC had flaws that needed to be fixed. The SBNC needed official staff support, and the original version of the bill failed to provide that. Incumbent school board members also wanted to be paid as much as the school board members appointed under the new system. Thus, if the only practical choice was the bill as it existed or the status quo, the choice was easy. The bill was an improvement over the status quo with or without the provision to turn the student member of the board into a second class member of the Board. By waiting until the last possible moment, the option set was restricted to just two choices, and that rendered the School Board’s vote politically irrelevant. All this is Procedural Politics 101. But for those who don’t understand how the game is played, it can be useful to point out.

April 2 –Press release announcing 21 applicants for open seats

On April 2, the SBNC announced that 21 applicants had applied for the two contested seats open this year. Why the huge number? I think the key was the Capital article published a few days previously announcing that no one other than Tricia Johnson, a current board member, had either applied or publicly announced their candidacy for the two positions. Consider this comment by one of the 21 applicants, Roberta L . (Kitty) St. Romain, in response to the question why she was interested in serving on the School Board: “I am interested in serving on the Board because I was horrified to learn that there were no applicants for positions that have the potential to positively influence the community.”

In politics, potential candidates are very sensitive to who else is or might run for the same office. Candidates then decide whether they have a chance of winning and act accordingly. In the great majority of elections, promising candidates announce early and scare off potential rivals who decide they have no chance of winning. In this case, a very unusual political dynamic was set up where all those who were considering running decided it wasn’t in their self-interest to publicly announce their candidacy.

On the question of the electoral rights of incumbent school board members, there was a lot of confusion (including by me) about what procedures incumbent school board members would have to follow in seeking reappointment to the Board. The statute wasn’t clearly drafted and so the SBNC didn’t know how to interpret it. Thus, it solicited the opinion of Maryland’s Attorney General. The consensus now appears to be that incumbent school board members will have to go through the SBNC process just like any other candidate. This corresponds to the process used by the previous School Board Nominating Convention and has been revealed to be the intent of those who drafted the statute. This issue now appears to be finally resolved.

April 7—Press release with updated count of applicants

In this press release, the SBNC announced that the number of applicants it previously announced had been “misreported.” No explanation was given for how the number could have been misreported. The new total number was 19. Subsequently, the number has dropped to 18. If the SBNC follows a vetting voting procedure, I think there is a good chance that the number of applicants will stay high. Otherwise, I expect it to drop considerably before the final vote is taken. Candidates who know that it is very unlikely that they will win won’t want to embarrass themselves unnecessarily.

April 6—Letter to Open Meetings Compliance Board explaining SBNC’s violation of the Open Meetings Act

In a letter dated April 6, the SBNC’s Chair responded to my March 6 complaint about its violation of the Open Meetings Act at its January 23rd meeting. According to the law, the SBNC had 30 days to respond (the SBNC took 31). In practice, the Open Meetings Compliance Board uses 30 days plus the time a particular correspondence is in the mail. The SBNC letter acknowledged that it violated the January 23rd meeting but didn’t mention either the existence of a January 30th meeting or that it also violated the law by holding that meeting in secret. When I filed my original complaint in mid-February, I did not know about the existence of the January 30 meeting.

The gist of the SBNC Chair’s excuse for violating the law was that he was ignorant of it at the time of the violation and lacked staff support. My guess is that all these excuses are primarily for PR purposes. According to my understanding, ignorance of the Open Meetings Act—even if it were true--is not a valid excuse for public officials who violate it. The Open Meetings Compliance Board has no enforcement powers, just the power to rule whether the law was, in fact, violated, which means that the only true enforcement power is the court of public opinion. Thus, SBNC doesn’t really care about what the Open Meetings Compliance Board rules; what it cares about is how that ruling might be framed in the press.

April 10— Press release with changes to public hearing format

In a press release dated April 10, the SBNC announced it would drop television coverage of the second phase of its public hearings. Faced with the choice of dropping the broadcast of embarrassing testimonials to the entire County or changing its pre-announced format for its second phase of public hearings, the SBNC has decided to do the former rather than the latter. I am frankly torn by this decision. On the one hand, I thought the format for the second phase of public hearings was subject to abuse (see my last post before the March 25 public meeting), with the greatest potential harm done if it was televised. On the other hand, television is one of the few meaningful ways to make the Commission democratically accountable. Televised debate formats that allow for audience give-and-take are very popular and informative (think of the CNN presidential debate with the Youtube questions and talking snowman).

My overall philosophy about the SBNC is that whether it is a poorly designed democratic institution or not doesn’t matter that much if it is exposed to enough sunlight. Sunlight will disinfect the SBNC’s undemocratic propensities. And I believe that TV coverage and accessible records could provide a good measure of that disinfectant. Thus, when TV coverage and record keeping is made impractical, the SBNC is weakened as a democratic institution.

The SBNC might argue publicly that cost was the reason for dropping TV coverage of the second phase of the public hearings. But I don't buy that because the TV infrastructure is already available in the County Council chamber, and coverage of public candidate debates is one of the highest and best uses of this infrastructure. In Vermont, where I originally came from, volunteers would televise such debates in political districts one fiftieth the size of Anne Arundel County. The broadcasts would then be preserved and become part of the public record.

The SBNC could yet change its mind. It could come out and say it was able to find the resources to cover the second phase of its hearings. But it’s my educated guess that this is not how it’s going to play out.


Despite all my criticisms—and perhaps in part because of them—the SBNC is off to a pretty good start. I believe it is struggling with its natural undemocratic tendencies and discovering that to preserve its good name it will not only have to spout democratic rhetoric but actually take steps to live up to it. I am frankly quite curious to find out whether this will, in fact, be the case.

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