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Joanne Heckman's Testimony at 12/1/15 Howard County Delegation Hearing (12-16)

Position: Support

The People’s Voice, LLC is an advocacy group promoting accountable and transparent government in Howard County. The People’s Voice supports the proposal to change the election of the Board of Education members from a county-wide vote to a district vote, so that one Board of Ed member will be elected from each of the five Councilmanic districts. Two additional Board members would be elected as at-large members with a county-wide vote.

District elections offer the same advantages to the Board of Ed members as to the County Council members. Of course it is understood that all these elected officials serve the county as a whole, and all of its citizens equally. But a specialization by district enables in-depth understanding of each district’s population, history, and needs. Decisions that affect the entire county require a generalist’s knowledge, which every elected official must have. Anticipating the impact of those decisions on the local level requires a specialist’s knowledge.

The school system concedes this by assigning Board members to a yearlong rotation at a “cluster” of schools. This deliberately prevents any member from knowing a “cluster” in depth or continuously over time.

In contract, most candidates for the school board have years of experience as a parent, teacher, or activist – sometimes even as a student – in their local schools. Does it make sense that, once elected, that candidate is assigned to a “cluster” in some other neighborhood? And a different one every year?

The voters in the district should decide who will represent them and act as their point of contact with the Board as a whole. The voters in a district should be able to evaluate their elected official’s individual performance over the four years of each term. Having a local election will oblige incumbents to defend their records to the people who elected them, and it will allow newcomers to campaign to the people who know them best. Making dozens of candidates campaign throughout the county is ineffective; few can afford county-wide campaigns, which we don’t expect for County Council or State Assembly races.

Those who can run a campaign comparable to that of County Executive candidates, with the same level of fund-raising and advertising, can compete for the at-large seats. District-based elections will allow many more qualified grass-roots candidates to run local campaigns. Elections will be less politicized, less about endorsements and name recognition, and more about individual qualifications and familiarity with the local voters.

This does not mean that a district’s Board of Ed member will be advocating only for that district or the “special interests” of that district, if in fact there are any “special interests” in education that are geographically delimited. Because school districts overlap councilmanic districts, each BOE member will have to consider the interests of other districts, as well as the interests of the county as a whole.

But it will mean that every citizen will be represented on the Board of Education. Unlike the current system, district elections will guarantee that the Board includes at least one member with detailed knowledge of the history, schools, students, and communities in each of the five districts. As in any other representative democracy, those Board members will ensure that local needs are considered along with general needs, that decisions made for all of us are also right for each of us.

Electing Board of Education members and County Council representatives from the same district will create collaborations between these elected officials – non-partisan collaborations, because the Board of Education is a non-partisan race. These working partnerships will strengthen the mutual bonds between local schools and their communities. Improving our schools benefits our neighborhoods, but schools can’t succeed without strong communities that support students and their families. Local officials are in the best position to make that happen.

Thank you.

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