Support for a partially elected Baltimore County school board garnered significant backing Wednesday when a state senator vowed to present draft legislation next month to the task force charged with evaluating the appointed board’s selection process.
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a task force member, has long supported changing the Baltimore County Board of Education from an appointed to a partially-elected body. But the the details of his draft bill actually have come from an unlikely source: Councilman John A. Olszewski Sr.
Many believed Olszewski, also a task force member, did not support such a change. But on Wednesday night, Zirkin said Olszewski’s idea of a board comprised of seven elected members was close enough to his own ideas for him to support. For the last five years, Zirkin, an Owings Mills Democrat, has sponsored bills in the General Assembly on a “hybrid” school board.
"Yeah, I'll draw that bill up," Zirkin said after the meeting. "That's exactly what my bill is going to look like."
Olszewski, a Dundalk Democrat, suggested the idea as the task force discussed the pros and cons of elected and appointed boards.
"What happens if you cut the board from 12 to nine and you had seven (members) elected—each council district has one elected—and a parent or teacher as the appointed (members) and if you don't have the diversity you want you can use those appointments," he said.
Discussion of the hybrid board slowly emerged as the dominating topic during a more than two-hour meeting at the Towson Chamber of Commerce offices on Wednesday.
The meeting was not advertised to the public and some members of the press found out about it by chance. Seven of the task force's 12 members attended what Sen. Kathy Klausmeier called "an informal discussion." The presence of a majority may trigger the need for formal notification under state laws governing open meetings.
Klausmeier also cautioned not to read too much into a single meeting, especially one that also discussed leaving the 12-member board as it is or requiring any changes to be approved by voters on a referendum.
Five members of the task force were absent from the meeting. Three of those members—Del. Emmett Burns, Sen. Delores Kelley and former County Executive Jim Smith—oppose elected school boards.
"The discussion might take a different course because those folks weren't here," Klausmeier said of the task force's next meeting.
Indeed, not all of the task force members present Wednesday were in agreement with adding elected school board members.
Former Del. Jim Campbell and Dunbar Brooks, a former president of the county school board, opposed the idea. Both favored continuing the current system of an appointed school board with one minor change: The county executive, not the governor, would make the appointments.
Brooks, who is African American, said he was concerned about the effect an elected board would have on diversity among its members.
Brooks pointed out that Howard County is looking at its own elected school board because of a lack of diversity. He discounted comments made during public hearings that members would be elected regardless of race.
"If Howard County, the great liberal Howard County, has problems with diversity and we're sitting here in conservative Baltimore County and that woman actually stands up and says, 'Oh, the voters will do the right thing,'" Brooks said. "Tell me in the 300-year history of Baltimore County when (voters) did the right thing electorally."
"I'm just telling you what I see," he said. "That doesn't mean the future cannot change."
After the meeting, Brooks said he was disappointed with the direction of the discussion Wednesday night.
"A board appointed by the county executive, that's where I am," said Brooks, a Dundalk resident. "That seems to be getting dismissed out of hand, I'd say."
The meeting Wednesday comes a week after the task force's final public hearing on the issue and just hours after a majority of County Council members signed a letter calling for the creation of a partially elected school board.
Olszewski did not sign the letter.
Councilwoman Vicki Almond said Olszewski was not asked to sign the letter because, "We know how he feels."
Olszewski said during the meeting Wednesday night he was "keeping an open mind" and would not have signed the letter "because it's a disservice to the task force."
The task force is likely to meet again in September.
It's required to issue a report by Oct. 1. That report may or may not contain recommendations for possible changes to the board, Klausmeier said.