Alleviating the school board’s special interest politics

| January 28, 2015 | 1 Comment

aacpsBetween now and July 1, 2015, Governor Larry Hogan will appoint to the Anne Arundel Board of Education a majority (five of eight) of its adult members.  In doing so, he will be limited to choosing from among those nominated by the Anne Arundel School Board Nominating Commission, which is required by statute to submit to him at least two nominees for each open seat.

The Commission is expected to vote on applicants for two of the open seats on Jan. 28, and it will start taking applications for another two seats in several months, with a vote expected in early May 2015. 

For choosing nominees, the Maryland General Assembly allows the Commission to select its own voting rule.  In response, the Commission has selected a supermajority rule whereby at least eight of its eleven commissioners must vote for an individual for that individual to be nominated.  That means, for example, that the four public union representatives (two from the teachers’ union, one from the administrators’ union, and one from the largest support staff union) can veto any candidate. 

The Commission should change this rule to require no more than a simple majority, which is the largest majority most legislative bodies use to approve, let alone nominate, a candidate for public office.  This change would be easy to make because it would require no more than a simple majority vote by the commissioners, the same procedure they used to create the supermajority rule in the first place. 

But the Commission shouldn’t stop there.  Maryland’s Constitution bans a lame duck governor from making appointments to a school board.  But the Commission is exempt from this provision, as the Constitution says nothing about indirect appointment processes whereby a lame duck governor’s appointees to a nominating commission can control appointments after he leaves office.   Nevertheless, the underlying lame duck principle applies whether a gubernatorial appointment is made directly or indirectly. 

Applying the lame duck principle consistent with the law, the Commission could reverse its existing voting rule and require only four votes to vet an applicant.  Moreover, use of such a minority voting rule is common when public bodies engage in a two-step decision rule, such as when a legislative committee vets a nominee for the entire legislature to consider, a court decides which cases to consider, or the public collects signatures to place a proposition on the ballot. 

From another perspective, four yes votes is actually a majority because five of the eleven commissioners are appointed by private entities such as the teachers’ and administrators’ unions.  Indeed, the Maryland statute creating these commission seats may be a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause, which mandates that every citizen be entitled to one vote.  For example, the Illinois Supreme Court found that under this constitutional provision a city council couldn’t delegate the election of a school board to either parents of children enrolled in a school or teachers teaching in the school (the administrators’ union brought the lawsuit).  

The Commission knows its current supermajority rule lacks democratic legitimacy, which helps explain why it never included this critical rule in its bylaws and passed it at an obscure, poorly attended meeting.  But many political practices persist even if they are too embarrassing to defend publicly.  It is the public’s job to demand an end to them.    

In America, we call it “special interest politics” when a small minority can veto a candidate for public office.  It may be impossible to eliminate such politics from school board elections.  But eliminating the Commission’s supermajority rule would be a significant step in that direction.

J.H. Snider, a political scientist, writes frequently about education policy. He can be reached at [email protected].

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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.)