Howard County Executive Ken Ulman is encouraged by the large number and ethnic and geographic diversity of the 15 candidates who have filed to run for the three open seats on the Board of Education.
In a letter to the editor published on Explore Howard, Ulman applauded the 15 county residents who have stepped up to serve their community in what he called a "critical time."
"Troubled by a lack of racial, ethnic and geographic balance on the school board, as well as performance gaps among individual schools and among groups of students, I and many others felt it was important to focus attention on the school board selection process, to overcome those challenges," Ulman said in the letter.
In August, Ulman convened the Board of Education Study Commission to look at the selection process. Headed by former Maryland school Superintendent Nancy Grasmick, the group recommended creating two appointed positions to help ensure more diverse representation on the school board.
A public hearing in September brought out more than 30 residents who spoke publicly about the issue. In addition to those who supported either the elected at-large board or the addition of the appointed positions, others recommended a board elected based on home districts.
State Del. Frank Turner, who supported creating two appointed positions, said at the hearing, "I believe there ought to be at least one member of color on this board."
School board members were appointed until the 1970s. A grassroots effort took the issue to a referendum vote and it passed. The board 's first election took place in 1974.
Former board chairwoman Janet Siddiqui said in September the board prefers an at-large group because members should represent all children. Members elected by district might end up pitting one school or community against another for resources and "obligations to home districts might interfere in setting countywide education policy."
Public outcry about politically appointed members was so intense that Turner withdrew his plans to submit legislation that would create two appointed positions.
In his letter, Ulman said that, in the first election since that "important dialogue" began, a large and diverse group of candidates gives residents a broader choice in filling the three seats up for grabs.
Fifteen candidates is more than twice as many as filed four years ago, and the most to run since 2000, Ulman wrote.
"The results of the election, and the composition of the next school board, won't be known for months, but I am encouraged by the potential to address some of the concerns raised by Dr. Grasmick, state Del. Frank Turner and many others," Ulman said in the letter.
School board candidates come from all over the county, including several from Columbia and Elkridge, two areas currently not represented on the board, according to Ulman. Several black candidates are in the running, as well. Currently, the only black member is student Tomi Williams. The board's student member is elected to a one-year term each year by students.
Few people are more important to the task of building and maintaining a successful school system than school board members, Ulman said in his letter.
"The school board can and must be a reflection of our great county, and it is critical that all members of the community are active participants in the future of our education system and our children," he wrote.