This year the Anne Arundel School Board Nominating Commission (SBNC) had two Board of Education (BOE) seats to fill, one at-large seat and one representing Legislative District 21. Applications were due April 27, 2012. Candidate hearings with Q&A were held on May 15 and May 23. Election of nominees occurred on May 29. The Governor must announce his choices by July 1.
Those who pay attention to BOE politics probably know by now who “won.” But the real news this year was the lack of news: the nominating process was over before it officially began (this pre-official nominating process is what political scientists call “the invisible primary”). As I predicted in my May 8 article, Four Candidates, Two Open AACO Board of Education Seats, the four candidates who applied for the two open seats were all nominated. Three candidates were nominated unanimously (Patricia Nalley, Elizabeth Leight, and Stacey Korbelak); the fourth (Tracey Warren), running for both open seats, was nominated for both seats by a margin of ten yes and one no.
All the candidates had professional credentials, winsome stories as child advocates, government work experience, and basic BOE political smarts. One of their most notable features was a studied lack of disagreement with each other. Such behavior is rare in candidate debates for most political offices.
Overall, SBNC members appeared to be very pleased with the candidates. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that the public hearings were a lovefest.
Barring an unexpected scandal, I believe it is a foregone conclusion that the winner of the at-large seat will be Ms. Nalley, the current BOE president. Nevertheless, it wasn’t necessarily a mistake for Ms. Leight and Ms. Warren to run against her. By law, the SBNC must nominate at least two individuals, even if it is clear which nominee is destined to win. Any nominee who has been vetted by the SBNC with a high vote total is in a much stronger position to win a subsequent seat.
The winner of the District 21 seat is harder to predict. Since both obviously have the necessary credentials, it may depend on the particular demographic mix the Governor thinks the BOE needs. Retiring incumbent Eugene Peterson from District 21, for example, argued during public testimony that Ms. Warren should be selected for his replacement because she was a woman and black, a combination lacking on the BOE. However, I’d place my bet on Ms. Korbelak, if only because Ms. Warren failed to get the vote of the SBNC’s Chair. I don’t believe the Governor has ever chosen someone not approved by the Chair, who he appoints.
A Bizarre Incident
The most bizarre feature of election night on May 29 was the announcement that the SBNC would go into secret session in part to discuss the conflict of interest of one of its members. While in executive session, I was told by a member of the AACPS Ethics Board that the conflict of interest involved Christine Davenport, who is the SBNC member representing Legislative District 21 as well as the SBNC’s Vice Chair. Ms. Davenport is a teacher-administrator who works for AACPS but has been on leave since 2010 when her conflict with AACPS began. As reported in a May 8, 2012 story published in the Capital, in early May she filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the school system for discrimination. (If you read the Capital story with the diligence demanded of a T.S. Eliot poem, I promise you will be richly rewarded.)
At no point did the SBNC mention publicly any of the details about the alleged conflict of interest, including the name of the individual involved. This delicacy about disclosing potential conflicts of interest among representatives is discouraged in standard parliamentary procedure.
My first reaction to this announcement of a potential conflict of interest was to be stunned. It seemed to me that the whole purpose of the SBNC was to give stakeholders both a seat at the table and a veto on the selection of SBNC candidates. Similar conflicts also riddle the AACPS BOE, Citizens Advisory Committee leadership, and PTA leadership. Indeed, one of the candidates, BOE President Nalley, has three family members currently working for AACPS and herself worked for AACPS for more than thirty years. It seemed wholly out of character for the SBNC to be concerned with such niceties. Moreover, the SBNC member in question had served on the SBNC since its beginning, and was reappointed this year by the Governor for another four year term, without her employment for AACPS raising a red flag. Perhaps the fact that the SBNC member in question is apparently suing AACPS provided the additional incentive for the SBNC to become sensitive to the issue.
I wondered: why did the Governor reappoint Davenport in February? And why did the SBNC apparently delay addressing the issue until the last possible minute? These questions reminded me of the Governor’s appointment of Richard Stewart to his five member Redistricting Advisory Committee. The day the Committee made its recommendations to redistrict Maryland legislative districts, Stewart resigned after pleading guilty to tax evasion.
The SBNC’s apparent concerns about conflicts of interest also reminded me of what was arguably the most notable feature of its May 15 question and answer session with the candidates. What was remarkable is not what was asked but what wasn’t asked and answered. None of the SBNC members asked President Nalley whether her three family members working for AACPS, or her own retirement benefits coming from AACPS, had ever posed a conflict of interest during her first five year term of office and might pose additional conflicts during her second term. Nor did anyone raise the question that five of the eight current AACPS adult board members have an immediate family member working for AACPS (President Nalley, Vice President Andrew Pruski, Eugene Peterson, Solon Webb, and Kevin Jackson).
When Anne Arundel County Councilor Cathy Vitale had a husband who worked for the Anne Arundel Fire Department, I recall that she occasionally recused herself from votes and regularly asked for ethics opinions about whether particular votes might pose a conflict of interest. This information was regularly published in the Capital, and it seemed to me that any constituent who was paying even a little bit attention knew about it.
The same cannot be said for AACPS. As of May 29, 2012, only Eugene Peterson and Andrew Pruski mentioned that a family member works for AACPS on their board profiles published on the AACPS website. (Mr. Peterson also regularly mentions that his daughter works for AACPS during BOE meetings). I have never seen these potential conflicts mentioned in the Capital (or the hiring of BOE member relatives while BOE members were in office). And in an informal survey I did of Anne Arundel delegates to the Maryland General Assembly, as well as parental activists within AACPS, I was shocked to find not a single one who could tell me which BOE members had family members who worked for AACPS. Most thought that fewer than two Board member had such conflicts and at least one could not name a single one.
Coping With AACPS’s PR Nightmare
It would, of course, be a PR nightmare for the BOE if one or more BOE members routinely could not vote because of conflicts of interest. But there is also a public interest rationale justifying not raising the issue at BOE meetings: if it were raised, the BOE would occasionally not have enough members for a quorum to conduct its business, or at least to conduct its business with what a reasonable person would consider an adequate democratic representation. And faced with the needs of a public body to conduct its business versus the needs of members to recuse themselves because of conflicts, the former must always trump the latter. Since Cathy Vitale only represented a single individual on the County Council, such balancing concerns would not have been relevant in her case.
I asked Ms. Leight, a member of the AACPS Ethics Board, why her Board never dealt with BOE conflict of interest issues. She replied it was because the Board only addresses signed, written ethics concerns. If AACPS employees or parents aren’t willing to sign their names to such ethics concerns, then the Board must act as though they don’t exist. I did not ask Ms. Leight if she was familiar with any potential conflicts of interest that would have warranted BOE member recusal on a particular vote.
In my judgment, one of the greatest impacts of BOE conflicts of interest has been to help turn Bob Mosier, the AACPS Public Information Officer, into the second most powerful person in AACPS. Normally, one of the greatest and most used powers of a school board member is use of the so-called bullypulpit to frame issues for public consumption. I believe the BOE leadership has forgone that power partly because it would be too embarrassing if a media outlet properly acknowledged that the speaker might have a conflict of interest.
BOE members might have little to fear about such attribution from the Capital, which usually does little more than slightly rewrite AACPS press releases. Indeed, sometimes I wonder if Mr. Mosier somehow retains the editorial powers he had when he was a Capital reporter and editor. But if a controversial story with a BOE member quote were in play, it would be hard to prevent the Washington Post or Baltimore Sun from picking it up. Then the Capital would face competitive pressure to provide journalistically appropriate attribution as well. In sum, letting Mr. Mosier take on the commentator role usually played by BOE members has probably been a smart political move—but it also greatly weakens the BOE as a democratic/representative institution.
Fortunately, I believe the SBNC has come to recognize that the current situation is too stressful to continue: there are simply too many BOE members with conflicts of interest. The current situation was created step-by-step, naturally, over the last five years. But the political danger has grown too great. Imagine the danger if all eight adult BOE members had blatant conflicts. Such a situation is politically unthinkable. Thus, during the last few years, the SBNC appears to have gone out of its way during the invisible primary not to encourage individuals with such conflicts to submit an application for open board seats. This year and last not a single such individual applied. This I consider a shrewd political move and a sign of the SBNC’s growing political maturity. Next year, for the first time in many years, the number of BOE members with blatant conflicts of interest will decline.
Let me clarify that I don’t believe having a spouse, child, or other close relative working for AACPS should, per se, disqualify one from serving on the BOE. (It is standard for state constitutions and municipal charters to ban legislators from simultaneously holding executive office, but family members are generally excluded from such bald prohibitions.) What I’m only advocating for is that all such conflicts should be regularly disclosed, when appropriate, before BOE votes, in newspaper articles, and during SBNC Q&A.
Moreover, the aggregate number of BOE members with such conflicts should also be routinely disclosed. Balance is important here. Just as it is important for the BOE to have a representative balance of whites and blacks, and males and females, it is important to have a representative balance of producer and consumer interests. The difference is that the above mentioned types of descriptive representation have been self-evident, whereas it is clear to anyone who has been paying attention that the balance of producer and consumer interests has not.
The political relevance of the issue is manifested by the extreme sensitivity to raising it in public. Not only was the SBNC’s silence on this issue as loud as a nuclear bomb going off at Riva Road, but at various points during the televised Q&A the obvious answer for President Nalley was to mention her family’s direct involvement in the schools. Whereas the other candidates seemed to brag about every little connection their families had with the schools, President Nalley’s much more impressive credentials went unmentioned. (In her application, however, she did answer in response to a question about her experience with AACPS that “two relatives” work for it; the third unmentioned relative, I believe, is only a niece or nephew).
County Councilman Jerry Walker’s Entrance
County Council Vice Chair Jerry Walker’s entrance midway into the candidate Q&A on May 15 raised my eyebrows. The audience for the Q&A included a majority of current school board members, relatives of the candidates, and up to three unaffiliated parents. Walker walked up to each school board member with a big smile and shook his or her hands. He then did the same with SBNC members during a brief break in the meeting. Overall, it felt to me like a campaign appearance. Upon reflection, it struck me as the way a smart county councilor would behave if he was seriously considering a run for county executive.
The SBNC appears to have finally joined Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board in treating Maryland’s Open Meetings Act—or at least parts of it—as a joke. It has reached the point where it barely bothers anymore even to justify its noncompliance. (Note: several years ago I wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about Maryland’s mislabeled Open Meetings Compliance Board.) As of June 7, 2012, only one of the five SBNC public meetings held this year had minutes posted on the SBNC website. Moreover, controversial information is systematically underreported. Consider the only set of minutes published so far during 2012. There is no mention of the Q&A regarding my request to find out how much the State of Maryland has paid the SBNC’s counsel. Since the SBNC was originally promoted as costing the taxpayers nothing, a highly paid counsel attending SBNC meetings is newsworthy.
But my biggest complaint with the SBNC’s transparency policies involves a purely legal practice. In George Orwell’s classic book, 1984, history is whatever is politically convenient at the moment. In the age of printed documents, erasing and rewriting history was relatively difficult. But in the new online world, it has become a breeze: you just have to change a web page and nobody will know the difference. Again, under Maryland law, all this is perfectly legal, at least insofar as the information manipulation involves dates of publication, public documents not formally approved at public meetings, or the elimination of online public access to public documents.
I’ve complained about such practices numerous times during previous years. This time I’ll mention just one fairly trivial instance that nevertheless was a great annoyance to me trying to report accurately on the SBNC. By April 27, all applications to the SBNC were due. In response to an email query from me late the following week regarding the delay in posting the applicants’ names, the SBNC’s Chair replied that the list of applications would be posted on the SBNC’s website on May 7. On May 7, the SBNC indeed listed the applicants on its website. On May 8, the SBNC added without notice a new applicant for District 21. On May 9, it also added that applicant for the at-large seat. And then it subsequently, also without any notice, removed both names from the website.
On other news relating to the citizens’ voice in AACPS, the chair of the Countywide Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) resigned in May 2012, nine months into her two year term of office. The chair was elected in an uncontested election in September 2011. The 2011-12 academic year was the first year the new top-down structured CAC was implemented. This follows a bare quorum of CAC members attending the CAC’s May meeting, plus many CAC member resignations over the course of the year. Fortunately, the embarrassing first year for the newly reconstituted CAC may be leading AACPS to reduce its top-down vise grip on the organization.
Nevertheless, I doubt the CAC will be conducting televised debates with the BOE candidates on the ballot this fall. As readers may know, BOE members appointed by the Governor must face a retention vote at the first general election after they are appointed. When Tom Frank, the CAC Chair, attempted to conduct such a debate during the last General Election in 2010, when four BOE members were on the ballot, he received a certified letter from BOE President Nalley that he would not be allowed to do so. The retention election was originally sold to the public as one of the great democratic features of the new BOE election system passed in 2007. But it now receives far less press coverage and public attention than even the most obscure items on the ballot. Given that the newly reconstituted CAC has been arguably even less unconflicted than the BOE, it may lack the democratic legitimacy to pull off a credible candidate forum.
For my coverage of the SBNC from 2007 (when the Maryland General Assembly passed the statute creating the SBNC) through 2011, see MyAACPS.net.