My column in the Patch (click here to go to the article; also copied below).
On the evening of Feb. 22, 2012 the Anne Arundel School Board Nominating Commission (SBNC) met to plan its procedures for the 2012 Anne Arundel Board of Education (BOE) election cycle. This was its first meeting for both its 2012 session and the four year terms of office for its five gubernatorial appointees.
The SBNC is composed of eleven commissioners: five appointed by the Governor (each from one of the five legislative districts in Anne Arundel County), one appointed by the County Executive, one apponted by the Anne Arundel Community College, and four appointed by private stakeholder groups (the Chamber of Commerce, PTA, teachers’ union, and school administrators’ union). The four year terms of the five gubernatorial appointees expired last December.
On Feb. 6, 2012 , the Governor reappointed four of his previous appointees and filled the fifth seat, a vacancy, with Kory Blake, Chair of the Anne Arundel Democratic Central Committee and staff representative at AFSCME, the union that represents custodial, food service, bus driver, and other support workers in the school system.
The SBNC nominates candidates for the BOE. For each open position, it nominates two individuals, from which the Governor must select one. Candidates require the votes of at least eight of the eleven SBNC commissioners to be nominated.
Three people were in the audience in addition to myself: BOE member Andrew Pruski, SBNC’s legislative counsel, and a member of the BOE Ethics Panel.
Of the five gubernatorial appointees, two attended the meeting. One of the missing three, Konrad Wayson, representing District 30, informed the SBNC that he did not want to serve a second term. The Governor is seeking recommendations to fill this open seat.
The board meeting started by approving the minutes from its May 17, 2011 meeting when the SBNC voted on candidates for the 2011 election cycle. This meant that to find out how each SBNC member voted on the previous round of candidates, as opposed to the immediate announcement of the winners, one would have had to wait more than nine months. As of Feb. 23, 2012, no minutes for the SBNC's 2011 meetings had yet been posted on its website. No mean accomplishment, this was the worst track record for timely posting minutes of the SBNC's four year track record. I expect these minutes will be retroactively posted in the near future.
This year there are two openings for the BOE. Eugene Peterson, representing District 21, has served two terms and cannot serve again. BOE Chair Patricia Nalley, representing the entire district with an at-large seat, is up for reappointment.
According to an opinion from Maryland’s Attorney General, Ms. Nalley, as an incumbent BOE member, is automatically nominated for another term and thus need not go through the SBNC process, which was the SBNC’s previously mandated procedure. However, via the BOE’s attorney, she has informed the SBNC that she intends to follow precedent and go through the nominating process. Given that it is widely understood that Ms. Nalley has no chance of losing, it’s not clear to me why this is an efficient use of the SBNC’s time.
Unlike last year, when the SBNC decided to hold no field hearings for the candidates, this year the SBNC decided to hold field hearings for both candidates. It is not unusual for only a few people to attend such hearings, especially if it is a hearing that SBNC and BOE choose not to promote aggressively.
Candidate applications are due by April 27, 2012. Field hearings are tentatively planned for March.
The SBNC’s Chair promised to post all the legal opinions from the office of Maryland’s Attorney General concerning the laws regulating the SBNC on the SBNC’s website. These opinions determine how the statute creating the SBNC should be interpreted. In the past, only some of these opinions were publicly posted. The SBNC chair also said that he continues to hope to write up a manual describing SBNC procedures, which are now scattered in dozens of different places including statutes, attorney general legal opinions, bylaws, minutes, and past precedent.
For the first time at an SBNC meeting in several years, the Chair announced he would take public comments concerning SBNC procedures. He also announced he would take public comments at all future meetings. I was the only person to take advantage of this opportunity.
I thanked the SBNC for allowing public comments and responding to my recent complaint before a Maryland Senate committee about the SBNC’s ban on public comments at its public hearings, except during the candidate hearings when the public is allowed to comment on the character of the candidates. Given the poor drafting of the General Assembly’s statute creating the SBNC, it was a wild ride during the SBNC’s first four years figuring out what the General Assembly meant and filling in the many loose ends. My guess is that the Attorney General’s office spent tens of thousands of dollars on legal consultations to help figure out the law. All this confusion should have been a reason to allow rather than ban public comment.
I then asked the Chair to whom he sent the February 13, 2012 press release announcing the February 22, 2012 SBNC meeting. He said the School System’s Public Information Officer. I said I hadn’t received email notice of the meeting until yesterday, one day prior to the meeting. Given 1) my numerous prior complaints to the SBNC about inadequate notice, 2) a ruling on the SBNC’s inadequate notice by Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board, and 3) the Chair’s previous promise to me to send me proper notice (seven days notice is generally considered proper in Maryland), I felt I had a right to be upset about one day notice.
I also reported that on the evening of Monday, Feb. 20, I had checked the SBNC’s website (as I had done many prior weekends on the advice of my House of Delegates Representative who said that checking on the SBNC’s website was the most reliable way of finding out about its future meetings) and found no notice of the meeting. But I checked again on Feb. 22, 2012, and it was there. The problem was that the website notice was dated Feb. 13, 2012, which was misleading because the notice clearly wasn’t posted on the website on that date. Unfortunately, I had found such backdating of notice and other public documents to be common BOE and SBNC procedure.
The SBNC Chair said it was not his fault. He had asked General Assembly members for a budget to operate the SBNC and they said no. Thus, he was dependent on the School System’s Public Information Office for notice. If the Public Information Officer didn’t post the information on the SBNC’s website, it wasn’t his fault.
I replied that the Public Information Officer’s job is to do PR on behalf of the BOE and that it is inappropriate for the SBNC to rely on him. The PR officer will heavily promote open positions for the BOE, and in a timely way, only when it is in his interest to do so. He will also put people on and take them off his announcement emails depending on his assessment of whether their receiving the information is helpful or not to the message he is promoting. Thus, giving the PR office such control is like taking control of the ballot from the Board of Elections and giving it to the incumbent candidates.
I closed by explaining the fundamental democratic principle called the “veil of Ignorance.” This is the temporal dimension to the principle that laws should apply equally to all, a principle emblazened on the front of the U.S. Supreme Court’s building. According to the veil of ignorance, electoral procedures should be determined prior to knowledge of the specific candidates that they would affect. For example, every serious democratic theorist agrees that choosing a presidential succession process in case of the death of the president should be done prior to the death of a president, when the identities of the potential successors are not known. I noted that unfortunately the SBNC had made it a practice to do exactly the opposite: wait until candidates were known and then adjust procedures to the candidates. I applauded the SBNC’s Chair for his stated desire to consolidate SBNC procedures, including PR procedures, in a manual. This I felt would go at least some way toward addressing this problem, as well as realizing another key democratic principle, which is that citizens should be able to have reasonably easy access to the laws under which they are governed.
The one issue I didn’t raise is what to do with all the new legislative districts in Anne Arundel County that are expected when the General Assembly passes the new decennial legislative redistricting plan, which must be done by Feb. 25, 2012. I’m sure that no incumbent politician created that plan with consideration about how it would affect the SBNC. I expect a new round of attorney general legal opinions, probably in conflict with earlier ones, as the SBNC and the public comes to grip with the legal and practical implications of the redistricting.
--J.H. Snider is a former chair of the Anne Arundel Countywide Citizen Advisory Committee. He has been covering the SBNC since the General Assembly created it in 2007. For past coverage, see MyAACPS.net.
J. H. Snider is the president of iSolon.org, a nonprofit public policy institute. Although Snider's specialty is the intersection of democratic reform and new media, he occasionally writes about education policy, where his work has been published in national publications, including the Washington Post, Education Week, and USA Today, and in several textbooks widely used in education schools. Snider has a Ph.D. in American Government from Northwestern University. From March 2010 to February 2011 he was vice chair and chair of Anne Arundel County's Countywide Citizen Advisory Committee.
Does the procedure for appointing SBNC members violate the core democratic principle of one-person, one-vote?
A Washington Post op-ed I published on May 24, 2003, "Getting Real on Raising Test Scores," described Anne Arundel County as "ground zero of Maryland's test-based accountability reform agenda. Two years later Washington Post education reporter, Linda Perlstein, left her job and spent the 2005-6 school year in Anne Arundel County writing a book, Tested, which critiqued Anne Arundel County's implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. It was disappointing to me that neither my article nor Perlstein's far more impressive work was ever the subject of a public school board discussion or local newspaper article. In my opinion, this reflects poorly on the quality of democratic deliberation on education issues within the County.
Jim Snider's proposal to reform Anne Arundel County's school board electoral system
In my judgment, this proposal combines the best features of the Anne Arundel County School Board Nominating Convention and the best features of an elected school board. Specifically, it combines the higher quality democratic deliberation associated with a self-selected nominating convention and the more rigorous democratic accountability associated with an election.
Click here for the full proposal.