Monday, October 19, 2015

Politics of Scale - A Better Board of Ed

My Council-member, Jon Weinstein, and Delegate Vanessa Atterbeary made a huge splash last week by announcing their efforts to transform the way we elect our Board of Education.  Amanda Yeager and Lisa Philips with the Howard County Times write that under their bill five board members will be elected by councilmanic district and two will be elected at large.  This effort has been spearheaded by Councilman Weinstein pursuant to his campaign promise of increasing accountability for the Board of Education.

This is a great bill and an important change for Howard County.  It seems that every two years I offer up the confession that despite my intense focus on local news and local politics, Board of Education politics escapes me.  Not only while they are deliberating and voting, but, more importantly, when I am deciding who I want to represent me on the Board.  You can confess too.  It's ok.  No one will judge you.  There are often 10+ people running for 3-4 spots.  A thorough study of the candidates will likely offer you little more than platitudes and campaign platforms that sound more like corporate-speech than education policy (ex., capitalize, leverage, synergy, capture, release, promote, empower, maximize).  And without a doubt, during some point in your evaluation of Board candidates someone will tell you it is the "most important vote you make" because our education budget is 60% of the County budget.  "Thanks.  It was a hard choice as it is, but now it is a hard and stressful choice.  I'm now going to go back to figuring out who's going to think outside of the box in a synergistic way that STEAMs the hell out of Howard County."

With so many candidates running (and confusion regarding what they are actually looking to do once elected), name recognition rules and accountability is lost.  If you can get your sign at more gas stations than the next person, you win.

Enter Team Weinstein-Atterbeary.  By grounding five of the seven members in geographic terms, voters benefit from "politics of scale".  The number of candidates will be manageable, more specific issues will be addressed, and, once the election is over, Moms and Dads will have someone to call when they have questions or concerns about their school.  It is that simple.

We should be thankful that Jon and Vanessa were willing to take up this issue.  The Board of Education has recently been a third-rail for Howard County politicos.  While everyone gets together behind ribbon cuttings and anti-bullying campaigns, Board-Council and Board-Executive relations have often been strained.  Why?  Because the Board gets to write a check for the County to cash.  And sometimes, the County needs to make painful decisions in other areas of budget to come up with the funds.  Any push-back in this regard is destined for failure so long as the headline would read "[Insert Elected's Name] Seeks to Cut Education Budget".  They may as well move to Cecil County before the Flier hits your doorstep.

Optimistically, a new method of elected Board members will change that.  If you feel your taxes are too high, you'll have three people to address that with - your Executive, your Council-member, and your Board-member.  And I'm going to guess the first two will send you to the third.

Do I expect this new structure to result in more restrained education spending?  No.  And do I think the current Board is irresponsible with education dollars?  No.  But do I think our current method of electing our representatives is fair?  I don't.

That's all for today.  Have a great Monday doing what you love.