The School Board Nominating Commission of Anne Arundel County will hold field hearings “to solicit the public's opinion on education issues facing their specific district, the Commission's process and procedures, and qualities necessary for a successful Board of Education candidate.” Hearings will be held in each of the five legislative districts represented on the SBNC. The field hearing for District 30, the first in the sequence, will be held on January 28, 2009 at 7pm at Annapolis High School.
Below I suggest eleven questions you might want to ask the SBNC commissioners. Remember that AACPS is a billion dollar organization with almost half as many employees (about 10,000) as a Fortune 500 company like Google (about 22,000 last I checked) and representing a district (about 500,000 citizens) as large as some U.S. states. Therefore, it’s reasonable to expect a high standard of democratic accountability.
1) The traditional ethic was that school board members represented all the kids in Anne Arundel County, not just those in their own district. This was reflected, for example, in the School Board Nominating Convention, where candidates spoke to the interests of the entire County. During the candidate public hearings last May, it was clear that at least several of the SBNC commissioners presented themselves as champions of their own district’s interests. The structure of the public hearings also reflects a focus on district interests. Yet the retention vote is countywide, not districtwide, and there has been a lot of rhetoric about not representing particularistic interests and representing all the kids in the County, with the example being set by the SNBC chair who nevertheless represents a particular district. Do the representatives of the five legislative districts see themselves as champions of their district interests (like most representatives) or the interests of all the kids?
2) Do the representatives of the five private interest groups see themselves as champions of those interests or the public’s interest? Presumably they will all say they see no conflict between their group’s and the public’s interest. If so, it is good democratic practice for them to make this claim and their reasons for making it on the public record.
3) It is also good democratic practice that representatives should provide public reasons for their actions. Will the SBNC members each commit to explaining on the public record why they voted for a particular candidate?
4) The members of the SBNC and members of the public appear to have a conflict of interest in recruiting school board candidates. The SBNC has demonstrated that it wants as many people as possible to apply for the school board, even if some of those candidates have no chance of being selected. Last year, for example, the SBNC was very proud when some 24 people applied as candidates (most soon dropped out when they discovered they had no chance of winning). Candidates, in contrast, don’t want to apply if they have no chance of winning. Will the SBNC as a whole and SBNC members in particular clearly state on the public record, and update each electoral cycle, what criteria they are looking for in school board members? One can assume, for example, that the SBNC looks for a mix of school board members by gender, ethnicity, and geography. Why not publicly state this? Judicial nominating commissions, for example, often have a clear and readily accessible public statement of the credentials they are looking for in a successful candidate.
5) Will the SBNC members representing legislative districts publicly disclose their relationship with the legislators in their district, including any financial transactions and campaign services provided?
6) Will all SBNC members commit to include in their public biographies the credentials that they believe make them qualified to serve as the public’s representatives on the SBNC? (Currently, some provide biographical credentials, albeit mostly shorter than they should be, while others do not.)
7) Will all SBNC members commit to publicly disclose any financial relationship they or their extended family have with the Anne Arundel County Public School Systems? This should include both current and retirement compensation.
8) Will the SBNC commit to treating its website as a public record (rather than a PR vehicle) with all the document integrity therein implied? Moreover, will it commit to posting all public documents at the same time that insiders on the SBNC get access to them? (This is a basic reference point used to judge the democratic quality of public record systems.)
9) Will the SBNC members commit to disclosing private meals and meetings with the candidates even if those meetings are not conducted as part of the officials business of the SBNC? Will the SBNC members take steps, such as the creation of ex parte disclosure rules, to discourage candidates’ private lobbying of the commissioners?
10) What type of questions should SBNC members ask of candidates during the public hearings and which commissioners should ask them? Some commissioners who were very talkative during the Commission’s private meetings asked no questions during the public candidate interviews last year. Very few of the commissioners who did speak asked candidates follow-up questions seeking proof of the candidate’s key claims about their credentials to serve on the school board. Such follow-up questions are standard practice in Congressional nomination hearings. Their absence at the SBNC hearings was striking.
11) Does the SBNC intend to make the public record of these district hearings public? Will that record be posted on the SBNC’s website? Will the SBNC place the public’s written statements in the public record and post them online?