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Diversity on Howard County School Board: Identifying a Problem

Asking the right questions is the first step to determining if there is a problem with the structure of the school board.

Before a commission charged with suggesting ways to improve the structure of the Howard County School Board can make recommendations, it first has to determine if and where there is a problem.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman created the commission after hearing repeatedly from various groups that certain demographics were not adequately represented on the school board. Residents have told him that certain ethnic groups and geograpic areas are not well-represented.

“I hear it everywhere I go,” Ulman said after a in Laurel.

But if there is a problem, it is unclear where, exactly it may be.

“You could change the structure [of the board],” said Commission Chair and former state superintendent Nancy Grasmick, “but if there are some fundamental problems, they will resurface again.”

The commission held its first meeting Wednesday, Aug. 10, with Grasmick at the helm.

The first thing the commission needs to do, Grasmick said Friday, is find out why it seems that certain areas and people are not well-represented on the school board “without any preconceived ideas about whether there needs to be change.”

Since board members are elected, Grasmick said the commission needs to determine what areas have a lot of voter interest, a little voter interest, and what the general voting patterns are in the county as they relate to the school board.

“Is there a problem in a sense that you have to run a campaign” to be elected, she asked. “Are there certain areas in the county where that is prohibitive?”

Or maybe it’s an issue of “voter fatigue,” she said. “You have to vote for the county executive, then for the county council … maybe people get to a point where they say ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter to me about the school board.’”

So the commission is just getting started, requesting documentation from the county and the school board about voter turnout in different areas and asking questions to narrow its focus.

And, Grasmick said, the board actually conducted a similar study several years ago but didn’t implement any changes based on its findings.

“So this is an independent group,” Grasmick said, and it’s comprised of stakeholders with diverse backgrounds and histories in different aspects of education. “It’s a really independent, but a very knowledgeable and very engaged group,” she said.

There is another type of engagement that will help the commission; public engagement.  During each of the commission's upcoming meetings, there will be a time slot reserved for input from the public.

On Monday, Sept. 12, there will be a “full-blown” public hearing aimed at soliciting comment from everyone who has something to say on the issue of diversity on the school board.

“We really want that kind of input from the public,” Grasmick said.

Upcoming meetings of the commission to study the structure of the board of education:

  • Monday, Aug. 22, 7 p.m. at the George Howard Building
  • Monday, Aug. 29, at 7 p.m. at the George Howard Building
  • Thursday, Sept. 8, at 7 p.m. at the George Howard Building
  • Monday, Sept. 12, at 7 p.m., public hearing, location to be determined

Residents can also submit questions, comments or suggestions to the commission via email: schoollboardstudy@howardcountymd.gov.

Brandie Jefferson August 16, 2011 at 01:01 PM
Just an aside, I have also heard a lot of concern voiced about geographic representation from a lot of people of all races. Particularly Columbia and Elkridge. (They didn't speak at the forum, so they're not on the video).
JJ August 16, 2011 at 01:36 PM
Good point Brandie. There is a big disconnect between Western and other districts in Howard County. The schools in the western districts are practically empty while central districts are still teaching kids in portable classrooms. The rich westerners with the help of those in charge (who live in the western areas) don't want to "infect" their schools with students from other areas. Districts do need to be re-drawn.
Valerie Montague August 16, 2011 at 05:05 PM
Speaking of diversity, does the panel include a parent representative, such as an officer of the PTA Council of Howard County?
Brandie Jefferson August 16, 2011 at 10:05 PM
Valerie, that's a great question. I know there is a student representative, but I do not believe there is an official PTA representative. I'm not sure, though. I'll check tomorrow.
Brandie Jefferson August 17, 2011 at 10:00 PM
Hi Valerie, according to HCPSS, there is no designated slot or requirement for such a representative. That might be a good topic to bring up at the next commission meeting on Monday, Aug. 22.

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