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Frederick County GOP calls for elected school board

December 06, 1996

By DAVID DISHNEAU

Associated Press Writer

FREDERICK, Md. - Frederick County votes Republican. Bob Dole for president. Roscoe Bartlett for Congress. Seven of its eight state legislators are Republicans. So are four of its five county commissioners.

It's a GOP stronghold - except for the school board. There is just one Republican among its seven members, all of whom were appointed by Democratic governors.

School board appointments are supposedly nonpartisan but some local Republicans don't believe it. They want to change their school board to an elected body.

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Odds are, they will, and Frederick County will join Maryland's 40-year trend of letting citizens choose their school boards - a right taken for granted almost everywhere else in the country.

Those who argue for the status quo cite Frederick County's respectable academic record. It ranked second only to Howard County in last year's state school performance tests.

"I would question the need to change something that is not broken," school board president James Cartlidge said.

But Timothy Gallagher, leader of the Frederick County Committee for an Elected School Board, said voters who are competent to elect their lawmakers are competent to elect school board members.

"The governor already appoints the state superintendent of schools, writes the state budget and earmarks money for school construction. He shouldn't also get to appoint the people that implement the policies and procedures of local school systems. That should be up to the parents of the county," Gallagher said.

Gallagher, a substitute teacher, is also vice chairman of the county's Republican Party Central Committee, which has long pushed for an elected school board.

Politics unavoidable

Opponents of an elected school board say politics should not enter into discussions of education. But it's unavoidable, according to Susan Buswell, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

"Whether appointed or elected, you are a public servant and I think by definition you become a politician," she said.

All Maryland school boards were appointed until 1954, when Montgomery County broke from the pack, Buswell said. Now 12 of the 23 counties have elected boards. Baltimore city's school board is jointly appointed by the mayor and the governor.

Nationally, at least 97 percent of school board members are elected, according to the National School Boards Association in Arlington, Va.

In some suburban Maryland counties, the push for an elected board grew as the population swelled, Buswell said.

That's true in Frederick County, where the number of homes by the year 2000 is projected to be nearly double the 1980 number. But the real impetus may have been Gov. Parris Glendening's appointment last spring of Maureen Lapsa, who had been recommended by the county's Democratic Party Central Committee, to fill an open seat on the board.

Del. Donald Elliott, R-Frederick/Carroll, said the appointment caused him to reconsider his previous opposition to an elected board, apparently shifting the balance within the delegation to 5-3 in favor.

He said educational issues such as home schooling and school vouchers have become partisan political issues, like it or not.

"It isn't that I have a problem with the individual appointed to the board by the governor," Elliott said. "But in choosing another Democrat for a board that already had almost all Democrats, I didn't think it was fair. I happen to know some of the Republican nominees and they were also credible candidates."

The only Republican on the Frederick County school board, Jean Smith, does not agree that an elected board would be better.

Although she would prefer a more balanced board, Smith said elections would prompt board members to place more weight on the popularity of their decisions. And the candidates most likely to be elected would be those who are best at running and financing campaigns - not necessarily those with the best ideas, Smith said.

In Frederick County, "our energy goes into the school system, not for being elected," she said.

Gallagher said elected members would be more accountable to the public, which could vote them out of office. Smith and Cartlidge said they are accessible as any elected member would be.

"I don't think anyone can come up and say, having put in a call to me, that I have ignored them," Cartlidge said.

Electoral `aggravation'

At least one Maryland county with an elected school board might switch back. Republican Del. Charles A. McClenahan said school board elections have been so problematic in Somerset County, which he represents, that he may submit a bill authorizing a referendum on reverting back to an appointed body.

Three of five board members who were recently up for re-election ran without opposition, he said.

"It's mostly that a lot of people don't want to go through the aggravation of running a campaign," he said. "Financially, it's not completely worth their while."

McClenahan's draft legislation would put a new twist on the appointment process. A local, bipartisan commission would evaluate candidates and fill board openings by majority vote. The governor would make the appointment in case of a tie.

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