Our Highly Politicized Board of Education

| March 2, 2014
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Members of our Board of Education love to pretend that they are above politics; that such behavior is reserved for County Council, General Assembly, and other public officials.  As for themselves, they claim all they care about is what’s best for Anne Arundel County Public School (AACPS) students.

But their track record running for higher office tells a different story.  Contrast the number of Board of Education members with the number of County Council members who have run for higher office since 2006, the most recent year when there has been complete turnover on both boards.  Both boards have a two-term limit, with terms of four years for the County Council and five for the Board of Education.  Candidates for the 2014 election cycle had to file by last Tuesday of this week.

Board of Education members who have run for higher office since 2006 are listed below:

  1. Paul Rudolph: Served 1996 to 2006; ran for state delegate and county council.
  2. Konrad Wayson: Served 2002-2007; ran for state delegate.
  3. Edward P. Carey: Served 2002-2010; ran for state senate and delegate.
  4. Tricia Johnson:  Served 2003-2009; ran for county council.
  5. Victor Bernson: Served 2006-2011; ran for state delegate.
  6. Andrew Pruski: 2009-present; running for county council (District 4).*

The comparable** list for County Council is:

  1. Edward Reilly, Served 2002-2009; ran for state senate.
  2. Pamela G. Beidle, Served 1998-2006; ran for state delegate.
  3. Cathleen M. Vitale.  Served 2000-2010; ran for state delegate.
  4. Josh Cohen. Served 2006-2009; ran for mayor of Annapolis.

Notes
*Ran for County Council in 2006, prior to running for Board of Education.
**Two members previously held higher public office: C. Edward Middlebrooks, 2002-2010 (state senate) and Bill D. Burlison, 1998-2006 (U.S. Congress)

Discussion

An interesting quirk is that members of the Board of Education with immediate family members working for AACPS appear less likely to run for higher office.  Of the five in recent years, only one, Andrew Pruski, has run for higher office.  Another, Eugene Peterson, took a job in community relations with the city of Annapolis.

Currently, no incumbent County Council member but one incumbent Board of Education member, Andrew Pruski, is running for higher office.

Of course, running for office does not necessarily entail winning office.  I believe that one reason former school board members have done so badly when running for higher office is that serving on the Board of Education teaches them bad political habits.  They learn that when it comes to average constituents, what really matters is words and images, not actions.  They learn that reporters only report their high-minded, pleasing words, and that there is no one around to actually report on their deeds and assign responsibility for them.  They learn that it is okay to hand out their email address or telephone number at a public event to demonstrate their democratic responsiveness while either not answering the resulting constituent requests or acting as though actually doing anything for constituents would be “micromanaging,” something they have vowed to AACPS staff not to do.  They learn that is okay to preach sympathy for underprivileged students but when a student grievance actually rises to the ultimate court of appeal, the Board of Education’s secret tribunal, they needn’t bother with the particulars of the case and can defer to whatever the administrators recommend, knowing that there is no political upside to doing anything else.  They learn that the PR office controls the records concerning their promises and actions and will carefully manage those records to favor any incumbent who doesn’t rock the boat.  They learn that no one need fear being Leopolded even if one’s objective political misuse of government resources does greater public harm; in this case, to defenseless students and parents.

Underlying the difference in outcomes is a difference in political structure: The County Council has a competitive, adversarial political structure.  Voters pay attention to who their County Council representatives are and expect them to serve their needs, even if they are merely average citizens.

Unlike the Board of Education, I do not object to politics; I object to politics without transparency and accountability, which encourages a make-believe world of politics adverse to the interests of students and parents.

Case Study: Andrew Pruski

To illustrate contemporary school politics, consider Andrew Pruski, whose story is timely because he is the only incumbent Board of Education member currently running for higher office.

Let me start by saying that I admire Mr. Pruski for being smart, energetic, personable, and experienced in both education policy and politics.  With the combination of his personal traits, the solid backing of the various employee unions who trust him (I wouldn’t be surprised if he had the best lawn sign coverage of any County Council candidate this election cycle), and the advantage he has being a Democrat in a Democratic district (District 4), I’d bet on him winning.

I’d estimate that Maryland taxpayers pay Mr. Pruski and his wife about $400,000/year in total compensation, including salary and benefits (about $240,000), deferred compensation (about $150,000), and school board salary ($6,000 to $8,000).  Deferred compensation may be misleadingly low for a public school employee who retires to a no income tax state such as Florida, in which case it is like an IRA deduction for a private sector employee, except without either a cap or the need to pay income taxes when the money is taken out.  Thus, on an apples-to-apples basis with the private sector and assuming a tax minimization strategy, I’d suggest that Mr. Pruski and his wife could earn the equivalent of about $420,000/year from taxpayers, even though about half of that may not be current salary.  Not bad for two earners in their mid-30s who started out as classroom teachers!  And why not advertise this to help us recruit teachers?  Note that Mr. Pruski has been a big advocate of the get-what-you-pay-for school of public compensation.

Mr. Pruski works as an administrator for the Baltimore County public schools and his wife as an assistant principal for AACPS.  Mr. Pruski’s wife was a teacher in a neighboring school district before former Superintendent Maxwell hired her as an assistant high school principal.  Three other school board members also currently have family members working for AACPS.  Although it would be illegal for a school board member to work for AACPS while serving on the Board of Education, spouses and children are exempt from such conflict of interest rules.  And although frequent ethics issues would arise if a County Councilor had a similar family relationship in county government, this doesn’t apply to the Board of Education, even though the Board of Education spends more money than the County Council.

Unlike County Council members, I have never read in a newspaper account that Mr. Pruski has recused himself from a vote involving his family’s work.  I do recall from watching a Board of Education meeting that the issue came up whether the Board of Education could endorse a General Assembly bill involving deferred compensation that would affect family members.  The parliamentarian responded that since a majority of the Board of Education (5 members) had such a conflict, the business of the Board of Education would come to a stop if all recused themselves.  Since it was more important for a government to run than for the members to recuse themselves, Board members had an obligation to vote.  This sounded to me like one of those “too big to fail” type of rationales or one of those fundamental injustices our political system fosters: steal $100, go to jail; steal $1,000,000,000, you’re a hero (caveat: for such a big number, I’m thinking here of the management of the public airwaves, an arcane area of federal public policy, not AACPS).

Mr. Pruski has used the AACPS PR office to provide tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of free and favorable publicity during recent years.  The PR office has widely publicized Mr. Pruski and one or more other board member when they have announced plans to solicit public feedback at a mall or some other discreet venue.  This is the type of non-controversial publicity candidates for public office love, as it sends the message, “I am here to serve my constituents,” with no messy downside.  Unlike other AACPS uses of government resources for political purposes, it doesn’t have to be hidden—even if it is the type of free publicity that AACPS only provides to its political allies.  The initiative began seven months before Mr. Pruski announced he was running for higher office.  Here are some of the Capital’s articles, each one featuring Mr. Pruski: November 19, 2013, “Public gets chance to meet school board members”; March 9, 2013, “School board, Army hold forum on schools”; June 24, 2013, “Board members to meet public in Odenton”; January 14, 2014, “School board members to meet with community Tuesday”.

Please understand that I’m all for encouraging democratic participation.  When the Governor appointed Mr. Pruski to the Board of Education and Mr. Pruski announced to the press “Accountability is here to stay; I like transparency” (Baltimore Sun, August 16, 2009) I was as happy as any citizen would be hearing such words. Kudos for getting out there and mingling with your constituents–just as politicians are supposed to do.

What most irks me about Mr. Pruski’s supposed championship of democratic participation is that during his term on the Board of Education, especially his term in leadership positions, the Board engaged in an unprecedented power grab to coopt the public participation institutions available to parents and students.  He oversaw the cynical transformation of the Citizen Advisory Committee system (the parent policy organizations) from a bottom up to top down lobbying tool for the AACPS administration, and the similar transformation of CRASC and the SMOB (the student policy organizations).  He has stood by passively while AACPS has cynically violated the spirit of Maryland’s Public Information Act, violated its own written policies and regulations promising democratic accountability, and abused, albeit discreetly, the many means at its disposal to intimidate parents and students who have tried to exercise their supposed democratic rights.  All these things I have written about in previous commentaries (e.g., see here and here).

Conclusion

Alas, the public and press don’t generally care much about process issues.  As long as the Board of Education continues to look like the family next door while expressing admirable public spirited values, wearing nice smiles (often near various child props), preventing gross administrative corruption, and preventing things from getting worse (which, to be fair, does require admirable skill), everything else will be viewed as mere trivialities.  As for the parents and students, as long as they accept their second-class political status, just as the politically weak have wisely done throughout history, I expect the type of cynical Board politics described here to continue to thrive.

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Category: Editorial, Education, Local Politics, NEWS, OPINION, POLITICAL NEWS

About the Author ()

J.H. Snider, a political scientist and democratic reformer, is a student of local politics. For updates on his local and state articles, like this page. (This Facebook page is an experiment and may be discontinued.)

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