Saturday, September 27, 2008

Re: Update on BOE TV Coverage Update


Thank you for seeking clarification of my comments concerning coverage of County Council proceedings. First, I want to applaud the County Council for televising its meetings. And yes, the newspapers and website contain the schedule of the County Council meetings. My point was a different one. I am told that more than 50% of Americans now have some type of a Digital Video Recorder. In my case, I use a DVR from Tivo. But most Americans use a DVR provided by their cable, telco, or satellite TV provider. These DVRs are able to pick up programming information and not only display the information on their TV set but also use the information for convenient recording. As I understand it, the County Council does not provide this type of electronic information integrated with its broadcasts.

If the County Council made its proceedings available online—as do many towns and school districts one tenth the size of Anne Arundel County—such convenience would be less important because the information would be available on-demand. But the County Council doesn’t provide such assess to its proceedings, so convenient DVR recording is a second best alternative. If you want to look at a nearby jurisdiction with greatly superior coverage of its town council, I’d suggest checking out Takoma Park, MD. There the video, minutes, and agendas are integrated and available online.

Having noted how the County Council provides better meeting coverage than the school board, I would now, in the interest of fairness, like to note a way in which it does not. By the standards of the Google generation, the school board may provide awful online access to its meeting minutes, but at least the minutes are available online (via the AACPS BoardDocs system in pdf format). The last I checked, the same cannot be said of the County Council. If I want to find the minutes of the County Council, I must pay 25 cents a page to copy them and be the subject of gossip among the County Council administrators who do the copying and are naturally intensely curious why anyone would want such information. In other words, to find the complete record of how my County Councilor voted over a four year term, I must pay the County Council approximately $400 (this is an estimate I made several years ago based on the 25 cents a page photocopying cost). That might have been an acceptable system to access county council votes a generation ago. But for the generation in which we currently live (and for a County Council with a $16 million ten year PEG/iNET budget and every tech gadget under the sun), it’s inexcusable.

Again, thank you for the opportunity to raise these issues.

--Jim Snider

P.S. Cathy, please try out if you haven’t already done so.

Re: Update on BOE TV Coverage Update

Posted by: "CMVitale-County Council"

Fri Sep 26, 2008 11:58 am (PDT)


The County Council meets the same day and the same time each month. The same channel as well. The website has that information, as does the newspapers. If you want to record us onto a dvd from your home, no problem. I do it every week, I don't know what the issue is that you said the county council has a bad practice of. Please clarify.

Cathleen M. Vitale

Friday, September 26, 2008

Update on TV Coverage of Board of Education public meetings

At a Board of Education (BOE) meeting in October 2007, the BOE unveiled a proposal to spend more than $400,000 of taxpayer money on equipment to makeover the BOE meeting room for TV coverage. The BOE told the public there was no time to propose modifications to the plan for BOE TV coverage because an immediate vote was necessary on the plan if BOE TV coverage was to commence at the start of the coming school year in late August 2008. When the August 2008 deadline came and went without a pipsqueak from the BOE, an October deadline for BOE TV coverage was put forth. Now the word is that BOE TV coverage will not be instituted until after the BOE elections on November 4. The hope is to begin installing TV equipment in the BOE meeting room the week of Thanksgiving, with possible completion not until January 2009.

At the October 2007 meeting of the BOE, I suggested online access to BOE meeting TV coverage, including webcasting. I also asked for the integration of meeting agendas with the TV coverage (critical for online access to meeting coverage but less important for traditional TV coverage). The BOE replied it had no plans for such coverage.

Now I would like to suggest two very minor modifications to the current plan for BOE TV coverage. By “minor” I mean inexpensive and easy to implement. The first is for the BOE to provide programming information along with its broadcasts so that the broadcasts can be easily recorded by DVR. All non-local cable stations provide such programming data. Locally, the Anne Arundel Community College channel also provides such data. The County Council does not. This is a bad practice the School Board should not copy. The ability to easily record BOE TV coverage by DVR should be considered an essential function.

Second, the school board should switch to electronic voting with a real time feed displayed on the TV screen. Such voting systems are now ubiquitous and inexpensive. My kids in college regularly use this type of technology when the professors are seeking feedback from the students in class. And when I attend conferences in Washington, DC, I increasingly see this type of technology being used to solicit audience feedback.

--Jim Snider

P.S. Thanks to all those who volunteered to help at the Countywide CAC meeting last evening (September 25).

Friday, September 12, 2008

SBNC May Violate the Law of Democracy

The School Board Nominating Commission (SBNC) has widely been recognized as a travesty of democratic practice because it violates basic democratic norms of political equality, including one person, one vote. But until this summer it never dawned on me that it might also violate the U.S. Constitution and the series of Supreme Court cases beginning in the 1960s applying the democratic principle of one person, one vote to local elections, including school board elections.

What follows are excerpts from Professor Richard Briffaultt's law review article, "Who Rules at Home?: One Person/One Vote and Local Governments," published in the University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 60, N. 2, Spring 1993. Professor Briffaultt describes three key cases, two decided by the U.S. Supreme Court and one decided by the Illinois Supreme Court, that apply the law of one person, one vote to municipal and school board elections.

The fundamental premise of federal voting rights law is that democratic government means government by consent of the governed. As the Supreme Court observed in Wesberry v Sanders, "[n]o right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live."

Avery v Midland County
Twenty-five years ago, in Avery v Midland County, the United States Supreme Court extended the one person/one vote requirement to local governments. Avery and subsequent decisions applying federal constitutional standards to local elections suggested a change in the legal status of local governments and appeared to signal a shift in the balance of federalism. Traditionally, local governments have been conceptualized as instrumentalities of the states. Questions of local government organization and structure were reserved to the plenary discretion of the states with little federal constitutional oversight. In contrast, Avery assumed that local governments are locally representative bodies, not simply arms of the states. Avery and its progeny, therefore, imposed new restrictions on state provisions for the organization of local governments.

Kramer v Union Free School District No. 15
In Kramer v Union Free School District No. 15, the Supreme Court again presumed that a local government's action has a community-wide impact. Kramer involved a New York law that limited the right to vote in school board elections to the owners or renters of taxable property in the school district and to the parents of children enrolled in the district's schools. The plaintiff was an otherwise eligible voter who had no children, lived with his parents, and neither owned nor leased taxable property.

Fumarolo v Chicago Board of Education
In Fumarolo v Chicago Board of Education, the Illinois Supreme Court… found that Kramer and Hadley continued to apply… when it invalidated the franchise and representation provisions of the Chicago School Reform Act. The Act provided for the creation of local school councils with a variety of powers for each of the grammar and high schools in the Chicago school system. Each council was to consist of ten members, with parents of children enrolled in the local school to elect six of their number, community residents to elect two residents, and local school teachers to elect two teachers. In invalidating the exclusion of non-parent residents from the electorate for most council seats, the Illinois Supreme Court determined that the councils' role in local education … mandated the application of strict scrutiny.

In defending the restricted franchise, the Chicago Board of Education contended that the local school councils were advisory rather than governing bodies. The Court determined that, although the district councils lacked the power to levy taxes or set basic educational policy for local schools, their functions were more than advisory, and the councils had considerable authority over local school operation.

Note that these cases do not hinge on whether an elected body approved a particular local electoral system. It would not matter, for example, whether the Maryland legislature unanimously approved a system of election that violated one person, one vote. For the courts, one person, one vote is a constitutional right that supersedes the right of legislatures to make laws.

Note also that these cases only indirectly apply to the structure of the SBNC. For example, the SBNC only has nominating powers, not general election powers. However, the SBNC is a very powerful nominating body because its recommendations are mandatory rather than advisory and because it only nominates two individuals to the Governor. If the SBNC acts strategically and nominates one individual who it knows the Governor will not appoint, then it has de facto general election powers.

Another question is whether the SBNC is an electoral body or an appointed/administrative body. As I read the case law above, it would be defined as an elected body with a restricted franchise, even though the SBNC is characterized in popular discourse as an appointed/administrative body (if all the members were appointed by elected officials, I would agree it was an appointed/administrative body, but by delegating membership in SBNC to the votes of special constituencies, it functions as an elected body).

Assuming that the SBNC does indeed violate the law, a simple solution would be to make its recommendations advisory rather than mandatory. But this would undercut the primary public rationale for the SBNC, which is that in the old School Board Nominating Convention process the Governor could override the preferences of the nominating body. Note that the recommendations of the judicial nominating commissions, a much cited precedent for the SBNC, are advisory only.

I am not a lawyer and have quite possibly overlooked some important considerations. This case may be especially tricky because, to the best of my knowledge, the school board electoral system in Anne Arundel County is unique and unprecedented in the United States (there are more than 14,000 school boards in the U.S., so this is saying a lot). Perhaps there is a legal reason why this is so. My hope is that there is at least one sharp legal mind out there who can shed some light on the applicability of this case law to the SBNC.

Note that even if the SBNC is violating the law, that doesn't necessarily mean much in the real world. For example, even after Maryland's Open Meetings Compliance Board found in May 2008 that the SBNC violated the Maryland's Open Meetings Act, there were no negative consequences. The press decided the story wasn't newsworthy (as a Baltimore Sun reporter told me, "this happens all the time, so it's not newsworthy"). When the Capital's Eric Hartley wrote about the SBNC's propensity to secrecy and the Capital's editorial board editorialized against it, neither even mentioned the SBNC's repeated violations of the law even though they were well aware of it. The general public also appears all but indifferent to Open Meeting violations.

Moreover, assuming that the SBNC does indeed violate the law of democracy (again, an assertion that is still speculative at this point), it's not clear to me who would have sufficient incentive to take the necessary steps to enforce the law. In the Fumarolo case above, for example, it was the school principals who brought the case because they were directly harmed by the law. What similar highly motivated constituency would do the same here? Not any existing parental organization that I know off. On the other hand, I can readily imagine some politicians or a political party getting a few good sound bites out of this. But concerted, effective action or a court challenge seems much less likely to me.

Additional Resources
An authoritative textbook on the law of democracy is Samuel Issacharoff et al., The Law of Democracy, New York: Foundation Press. I have the 2001 edition. See Section B of Chapter 3: The Reapportionment Revolution, pp. 185-208.

Monday, September 8, 2008 Launched

Today marks the official launch of offers a one stop source of education news about Anne Arundel County. It provides the following four services:

1) Get RSS feeds of articles on AACPS.

2) Search for articles by source, date, reader ranking, and unstructured text.

3) Comment on an article.

4) On a 1 to 5 start scale, recommend an article or comment to others to read.

Its primary intended audience is opinion leaders among AACPS parents. It is not intended for parents with only a casual interest in AACPS policies, practices, and politics.

I designed the website with the advice of the Advisory Board, including Paul Rudolph (Former Member and President, Anne Arundel County Board of Education), Tom Frank (Education Chair, Greater Crofton Council), Sam Georgiou (Former Chair, Countywide Citizens Advisory Committee), Steve Johnson (Former Chair, Annapolis Cluster Citizens Advisory Committee), and Pallas Snider (Former Member, Anne Arundel County Board of Education). Perhaps the closest precedent for is the national article rating service, was created with volunteer effort and will need to be maintained by volunteer effort. Over the coming months, I’ll be looking for volunteers to take on a number of responsibilities, including posting links to articles to in a timely way (it takes about 30 seconds to post each article link to and moderating comments for SPAM.

Currently, only includes major local newspaper coverage of AACPS (e.g., Capital, Baltimore Sun, and Washington Post). Eventually, I would also like it to include blog coverage of AACPS. This would allow AACPS bloggers to develop a reputation and build an audience. However, this enhancement of would depend on a number of factors, including the emergence of AACPS bloggers and volunteer commitment to maintain such an enhanced information service.

Please take a look at, subscribe to its RSS feed, read some articles and comments, post some of your own comments, and use the star rating system to recommend articles and comments to others. New information technology is creating all sorts of new opportunities to enhance democracy in general and empower Anne Arundel County parents in particular. I hope that helps to realize some of that promise.

--Jim Snider

P.S. I am on the agenda to introduce to the countywide CAC at the CAC’s Thursday, September 25 meeting. I hope those interested in volunteering to help maintain and enhance will attend that meeting and speak to me privately afterwards.