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Howard County Schools in Flux

Could new commission's proposal improve a school board nearly submarined by petty politics?

Three years ago this month, my wife and I left San Diego for the D.C. area in a matter of weeks, with no idea where we should settle. (Let’s just say transitioning from the military to a civilian job during the financial collapse of September 2008 wasn’t the smoothest process.)

My wife was pregnant and ready to move into a house with a yard after years of apartment dwelling, and she developed three requirements.

One, our new home had to be in commuting distance of D.C. Since I was the one doing the commuting, we had a pretty generous definition of what that distance could be.

Requisite Two restricted our search to Maryland, instead of opening it up to Northern Virginia. I have no idea why she wouldn’t consider Arlington or Alexandria, but we were staying out of the “real” South.

It was Reason Three that ultimately led us to Howard County: schools. Although we’re still years from our first foray into parenting public-school scholars, my teacher-wife was insistent that wherever we lived, the local schools be top-notch.

We selected a realtor online, more or less by chance, flew to the East Coast, and were soon roaring down Route 100. Elkridge had everything we were looking for, especially given the vaunted Howard County Public School System.

The past few weeks, though, have brought the school system back to our attention—and not always in a good way.

In the main, our schools have continued their tradition of excellence. This year, Howard County high schools continued to exceed national and state averages in both participation and scoring on that most dreaded college application benchmark, the . In fact, it seems the kids in school are upholding their end of the bargain; it is the adults purported to be acting in their interest that are falling behind.

Last week, a Howard County Board of Education meeting literally ground to a halt as some members sought to silence the outbursts of frequent flashpoint Allen Dyer. Most well-known for his frequent  against the board on which he sits, Dyer felt a law firm being considered for contracts might have had the possibility of having some conflict of interest.

I have no doubt that Dyer sees the possibility of impropriety—spurred by lawsuits before today’s fifth graders were even born—as a matter of the utmost importance. Whether the child sitting in a crowded portable classroom, sweating in the Maryland heat, sees the same level of criticality in such a dispute, though, is unlikely. It would do Dyer well to remember that transparency for transparency’s sake is no real guiding principle, and that intra-board lawsuits improve no child’s education.

Meanwhile, that portable trailer remains in the  parking lot. Not even a proposed new elementary school, badly needed, can escape  as adults squabble over proposed site(s).

Instead of focusing on the need of our students, naked self-interest has too often become the order of the day,  over community needs.

It would appear that in many instances, we have adults behaving in a manner that would be considered unacceptable for the children they’re ostensibly there to serve.

Of course, there is always the question of whether bureaucratic disruption will cause any impact to the actual students. Despite his history of legalistic wrangling, Dyer hasn’t caused any kids to stop learning. But in the long-term, a board that is less than fully functioning will only ultimately fail our children.

This week, a Board of Education Study Commission, stood up by County Executive Ken Ulman, recommended that Howard County’s current method of electing seven members from across the county be changed. The recommendation: electing five members by council district, with another two members appointed by an as-yet-unnamed entity.

Although the commission was tasked with finding ways to improve diversity on the board, that should not be our only concern as we weigh the proposal’s merits. A better metric, I think, would be if the proposed construct would improve the functioning of the board to facilitate its mission of maintaining and improving some of the best schools in the country.

Elected by district, members would be more attuned to constituents' immediate concerns. Residents would have direct touch points to address concerns, rather than facing a monolithic body. There is some concern that school districts don’t align neatly with the County Council borders, but it seems that these border schools could be easily assigned. Issues like  and  would gain immediate advocates for resolution.

More controversial is the idea of removing two officials from serving at the direct pleasure of the public, instead being appointed by others. In my view, increased professionalism and stability on the board could only help improve the functioning of a body currently nearly submarined by petty politics.

As the elected members of the Columbia Association (CA) depend on the paid CA employees, as U.S. Congressional committees are held together by their own staffs and support agencies (like the Congressional Budget Office), elected officials frequently rely on a leveling of consistent, paid bureaucrats who can maintain continuity and knowledge beyond that of those who come and go. Our children—heck, my child, Howard County-born—deserve the best, not lawsuits and meetings that can barely pass an agenda. The school board study commission’s proposal would go a long way towardaccomplishing that most basic of goals.

JH September 23, 2011 at 02:23 PM
An interesting story until you get to the part about appointing members of the school board. That Commission recommendation is nonsense. The appointments are going to be political payback positions ---- you vote for me and I will appoint a person from your special interest group. The larger community will pay the price for this foolish course of action. Tell elected leaders that we want to maintain democracy in America.
Heather Cindric September 25, 2011 at 12:07 PM
Tj Mayotte, this is a well written article, but I don't understand how you came to the conclusion that appointed, voting BOE members are equivalent to Columbia Association Staff members and Congressional Staff members. We are not talking about extra staff members to support elected officials and help them do their jobs but appointees who will be able to negate the votes of elected officials. Appointees who hold their jobs at the pleasure of the county executive or some other (bad because it concentrates power), or some other entity such as the state BOE (worse, because it concentrates power outside of the county at the state level). For the equivalent that you are searching for, look to the HCPSS staff. They are paid professionals who do their jobs well and provide all the knowledge and continuity that an elected body of layman may lack. Our HCPSS staff only needs a compass to point them in the right direction which is the job of elected representatives. --Heather Cindric, HC resident
TJ Mayotte September 26, 2011 at 07:12 PM
Heather, Thanks for your great comment. You're absolutely correct- the ability to vote, and thereby affect the direction of HCPSS, is an important distinction between the proposed restructuring and other professional staff. I would say, though, that the current board has had difficulty in effectively acting as that needed compass you mention. It's possible that just the threat of restructuring might get the current board to refocus, and bring needed attention from citizens. (As seems to be happening.) Either way, I think our metric for supporting or opposing the proposal should be what's best for the continuation of a incredibly effective school system, not vague ideas of diversity or anything else that's being brought to the table by both the pro and con forces. Thanks again for adding your perspective- it's given me a lot to think about!

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