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At-large board has record of success

February 26, 2006

To the editor:

It has come to our attention that the Washington County delegation is considering recommending a referendum of the voters of Washington County to elect school board members by "regions" or geographic voting areas of the county. This letter is written to voice our strong opposition, as citizens and taxpayers in the county, to any initiative to create a "regionalized" Board of Education election.

Unlike other jurisdictions such as Montgomery County, where this system exists due to the fact that large numbers of people reside in various and distinct population centers of that county such as Silver Spring, Rockville, Chevy Chase and Gaithersburg/Germantown, Washington County has only one high-density population area at the present time and for the near future. These students represent almost half, or 49 percent, of the total student population of 21,000.

While student enrollment is growing dramatically in the neighborhoods feeding Paramount, Pangborn, Potomac Heights, Doub and Salem elementary schools, for example, student population is diminishing or is flat in Hancock, Cascade, Pleasant Valley and Smithsburg, some of the more outlying areas of the county from its seat.

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More resources, such as capital improvements, textbooks, furniture, portables, teacher positions, etc., have had to be given to those growing in population in order to meet the demands placed on the schools through overcrowding. Would a regionalized board, by its very nature, be willing to provide resources where they are most needed due to overcrowding or for other reasons, if this means an individual board member's region might not receive an equal amount?

Following from the above, for example, in FY 2007, we will spend nearly $1 million for an asbestos abatement project at Williamsport High School. This singular large project will give the Williamsport area a disproportionately high percent of the total maintenance budget for FY 2007 as a necessary element for student and staff safety.

Again, would a regionalized board be willing and able to make this important decision to allocate resources to an area of highest need despite the concerns of a regionalized constituency?

That said, we are concerned that a regionalization of the board could encourage a partisan approach that does not presently exist and could promote "infighting" over resources.

The Board of Education believes the following, important questions and points should be addressed by the delegation before taking such serious action:

The capital improvement budget has tripled over the last three years and the ability to address deferred maintenance projects across the county has increased dramatically, as well. All areas, not just some areas, have received capital improvements or are slated to receive same in current and future budgets. As board members elected "at-large," we know we are charged to address the needs of all facilities in the county, not just one geographic/constituency area.

Another very important point to consider is that a majority of the school system's poor and minority students resides in the high-density population schools in and around Hagerstown.

According to the 2000 census, more than 18 percent of the population within the city is below the poverty level. If regional, partisan board members work to form a voting block or majority vote against areas where such students attend school, redeploying resources from the neediest students, this could become a major civil rights issue, and potentially threaten our Title I funding.

Furthermore, as you all know well, it is illegal to form any voting districts that do not reflect equal populations and vary by more than 5 percent. With the 2000 census indicating that 14 percent of Hagerstown's population is minority, and south county is predominately white, middle-income, how will the legislature ensure not only equal voting districts on the Board of Education, but equal representation of student populations within those districts and not vary them by more than 5 percent?

Other points to consider would be the potential for too much longevity for certain individuals if elected by regions, rather than at-large.

The potential for individuals to build "fiefdoms" and behave tyrannically, in perpetuity, without responsiveness to the larger groups of citizens and voters of the county will be greater. The potential would also be greater for special interest groups to exert more power and impose their personal influence and opinions upon those they helped elect in less populated, local districts.

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