Early voting is under way and Baltimore County residents will for the first time elect some of the members of the school board. The way it’s being done can be confusing, but there are those who think electing school board members is the key to mending the current, fractured board. WYPR’s John Lee joined Nathan Sterner in the studio to talk about it.
Sterner: John, what’s happening on the county school board now?
Lee: It is a board that regularly splits 8-4 on key issues, most notably in the battle over whether to make Verletta White the permanent school superintendent. And it’s not hard to pick up on the bad blood between board members. For instance, there recently was debate over whether to make White interim for another year, after the board’s vote to make her the permanent superintendent was rejected by State School Superintendent Karen Salmon. And that happened after members of the minority lobbied Salmon to do that. At a recent board meeting board members accused each other of having a double standard and being out of order. At one point there was this back and forth between board chairman Ed Gilliss and board member Kathleen Causey. Gilliss was saying the board was pressed for time and had already discussed the White appointment in closed session. Causey countering that that was not enough time to discuss what she called the board’s most vital and urgent issue.
Gilliss: “We need to move on. It’s 6:10 and we have a graduation at 7. Mrs. Causey.”
Causey: “Well maybe we should have planned the meeting a little earlier and not just thought.”
Gilliss: “We did plan. Hold on. We did plan.”
Causey: “Do I have the floor?”
Gilliss: “Not yet.”
Sterner: Have the candidates running for county executive weighed in on what’s happening on the school board?
Lee: I’ve spoken to each of them about this and they all say variations on the same theme: that the board is fractured and if elected county executive they will get involved to try to fix it. Republican candidate Al Redmer summed it up this way.
Redmer: “Not only do they disagree, but they tend to be disagreeable.”
Lee: Redmer and other candidates say they would try to mediate differences on the board. But it’s important to note that the county executive technically does not have any authority over the school board. The executive does, however control the school system’s budget. So the executive candidates also are hoping this move to a partially elected board will help matters.
Sterner: How does the voting work?
Lee: There are seven council districts in Baltimore County. Each council district will have one elected school board member. There are competitive races in all seven districts. And the primary vote that’s going on now is really a runoff. Voters will pick the top two candidates in each district to face off in November. But here’s the tricky part. In three of the council districts, the 2nd, the 5th and the 6th, there are only two candidates. So in those three districts, there is no school board contest on the primary ballot, but there will be one in the general election. And in case you know your council members and not your district number, I am talking about the districts represented by Vicki Almond, David Marks and Cathy Bevins.
Sterner: And there will be newly appointment members as well.
Lee: That’s right, there will be four seats appointed by the governor. The county school system will not disclose the names of those who applied, but I’ve been told there are around three dozen applicants. Only two current board members are running in the election. So Nathan, when the new school board is in place after the election, it will be a very different board.