Tuesday, January 6, 2009

SBNC and BOE TV Updates


On January 12, 2009 at 7:00 pm, the School Board Nominating Commission (SBNC) will hold its third meeting of the coming appointment cycle for the AACPS Board of Education. The SBNC uses these low profile hearings to discuss critical procedural issues.

At the SBNC’s last meeting, it tentatively decided to decide what its nomination rules would be after candidates had submitted their applications. The specific rule concerned whether those who had been nominated during the previous round of nominations would have their names automatically forwarded to the Governor during the current round of nominations. I think there are good arguments that can be made for and against this particular type of multi-nomination system. But I cannot think of a single reason, consistent with widely accepted democratic norms, for allowing the SBNC to make this decision after it sees the pool of applicants. This is like changing the electoral rules after an election—a practice frequently done in political systems characterized as “electoral authoritarism” (many countries, such as Russia and Venezuela, have heads-I-win, tales-you-lose elections) and universally condemned by democratic theorists.

At the SBNC’s first meeting, it was suggested that the public hearings be conducted at schools scattered across the County. The tradeoff proposed was no TV coverage of the hearings in return for getting a larger and more diverse face-to-face audience. Although no final decision was made, it was striking that no one mentioned that such a tradeoff was unnecessary. The County has spent millions of dollars connecting every high school and middle school—and many libraries and elementary schools—to a gigabit Ethernet network. Internet feeds from this network, in turn, can be automatically fed into the public access TV channels (this, for example, is how the Anne Arundel Community College does it). Moreover, the SBNC’s discussion of this matter revealed no recognition of the importance, from the standpoint of democratic accountability, of having a high fidelity, easily accessible record of the candidate hearings. Currently, candidates can promise to the SBNC whatever sounds politically expedient at the moment, and there is virtually no public accountability because there is no readily accessible public record of their promises. Similarly, the SBNC commissioners can utterly fail during the Question & Answer period to do their due diligence—that is, failing to ask the most obvious follow-up questions—and know that they face no consequences for such behavior. The purpose of a public record, then, is to try to keep both the candidates and SBNC commissioners reasonably honest. At the SBNC’s second meeting (I was the only member of the public to speak at either the first or second meeting), I did try to make these points, especially about the technical feasibility of televising meetings outside Riva Road. But I wouldn’t count on my arguments making much of an impression.

In general, I would encourage all prospective candidates for the AACPS Board of Education to attend at least one of these preliminary hearings. So far, three have done so, and I think for good reason.

Board of Education TV Update

The completion of the Board of Education TV system has been postponed—once again. But the current expected completion date, January 20, 2009, is likely to be met. Too bad it comes a week after the public budget hearings—the most popular type of televised hearing in most school systems.

I wish people could have seen the October 2007 Board of Education public meeting that discussed and voted upon the proposed Board of Education TV system. It was held during the work day, and I counted only four members of the public in attendance, including myself and the Capital reporter. In light of subsequent events, these are the points that such a record could have revealed:

1) The false promises of the AACPS staff, including the 400% cost overrun, unmet completion deadlines, and inaccurate claims of urgency (the excuse used for rushing the TV proposal to a School Board vote without prior public discussion).

2) The failure of the School Board to do meaningful oversight, including due diligence before, during, and, as it turns out, after the hearing.

3) The failure of anyone to be held accountable for the above.

You can bet that the when the TV system is complete it will generate a self-congratulatory press release--one that will probably be run next to verbatim in the Capital.

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