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Public Dissent Over Emergency Balt. Co. School Board Leadership Bill Meeting, Triggers House Delegation to Pull Bill from Friday’s Agenda

The Baltimore County House Delegation has suspended a meeting that was scheduled for Friday concerning an emergency Baltimore County School Board leadership bill after hearing significant concern from the public.

House Delegation Chair Del. Pat Young’s legislative aide, Cole Beauchat, confirmed the change on Thursday.

Beauchat said that Young’s office pulled the agenda item in which the delegation would have voted on the bill. And said that it was pulled in order to restore public confidence in a process that some felt excluded the public from an opportunity to testify for or against the legislation which aims to alter the number of affirmative votes needed in order for board members to elect new leadership.

Last Friday, the delegation held a hearing on the proposed legislation but did not hear public testimony because legislators said no one had signed up to speak. The meeting was the only opportunity for the public to testify in front of the delegation.

Beauchat acknowledged that the meeting was added to the agenda one day before which may not have given the public enough notice to prepare for or even become aware of the meeting.

“They felt as though the bill was snuck in or the wool over pulled their eyes last minute,” Beauchat said. “It’s reasonable for someone to get to that conclusion,” he said. But he said that the busyness of Annapolis and getting hearings scheduled late sometimes occurs when numerous bills are being scheduled simultaneously.

As it stands, affirmative votes from seven school board members are required in order to elect the board’s chair and vice chair positions. If passed, the bill would change that to a majority of members who are in service as board members at any given time which means those who are active board members, and not simply absent from a meeting.

Since the 12-member board is currently down one member after the October passing of at-large member, Roger Hayden, the school board operated without what may have been the deciding vote when it attempted to vote in December for the board’s new permanent leadership.

The lack of agreement left incumbent Chairwoman Kathleen Causey and Vice Chairwoman Julie Henn in place as holdovers when school board attorney, Andy Nussbaum, ruled that seven votes were required.

The Maryland State Department of Education upheld Nussbaum’s ruling this month.

But in response to the undecided board, Del. Eric Ebersole, a Democrat who represents parts of Baltimore and Howard counties in the twelfth legislative district, sponsored emergency legislation this month, which aims to solve what some state legislators see as a problem since the school board became deadlocked, deliberating on its board leadership for several hours during the first week of December.

House Bill 1633 is co-sponsored by House Speaker Adrienne Jones, Delegates Jessica Feldmark and Pat Young and cross-filed by Charles E. Sydnor, all Democrats.

When asked why the bill was classified as an emergency matter, Ebersole said that it’s a technical term – not an actual emergency – which is sometimes used so that legislation can be enacted as soon as the governor approves it, instead of going into effect on July 1.

He said that the term “emergency” does not denote an actual emergency as the name implies, but has to do with how quickly the bill can become law.

Ebersole and other legislators have received significant opposition to the bill since it was filed on Feb. 21, due in part to its timing.  The filing of the bill followed news that the chair of a nominating commission, which is charged with filling Hayden’s vacancy, withheld 40 percent of the applications from the full commission until it came to light one day before the bill was filed.

The applications were restored in time to interview all 17 applicants this month, but the move – coupled with the emergency bill – has given the appearance that Annapolis intended to influence this year’s specific election of Baltimore County’s school board leadership before the commission and the governor had a chance to fill the vacancy.

Ebersole said he understood the optics and acknowledged that he and some of the co-sponsors of the bill began drafting the legislation only very recently. But he said the move was to be helpful to the school board so that when vacancies are caused by the deaths or resignations of board members, that those vacancies don’t create problems for the school board when members attempt to elect new leadership, which is required to occur each December.

And he said that the bill does not compel the school board to call an actual vote during a specified time, even if it were to pass.

Ebersole also sponsored legislation last year which modified how much school board members are compensated for their work.  Baltimore County School Board members now earn a $7,500 stipend per year, a significant increase from the annual $100 stipend members previously received.

Of the board leadership bill, he said, “We wanted to give the board an opportunity to have a successful election for officers.”

On Monday, the nominating commission – an independent committee distinct from the school board – will vote on its recommendations to fill Hayden’s vacancy and will provide two options to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan who will choose the board’s appointed member.

In the meantime, on Tuesday, the House Ways and Means committee will hold a hearing on the bill, which will allow for public testimony. (Update: the cross-filed bill will also be heard by the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee on the same day and time.)

While Ebersole said it is possible for committees to vote on legislation before the House and Senate Delegations do so, he has not ever seen it happen in the six years he has served as delegate. The bill would still have to pass a senate committee and both houses before it reaches the governor for approval or veto.

But Ebersole assured that “the bill won’t move forward until both delegations approve it.”  And he said he is considering input he has received from the public on amending the emergency classification so that it is clear to the public that the bill aims to fix future problems the school board may encounter when there are vacancies, and that it is not intending to influence the current election.

He added that the bill will not require the board to hold a new election of its officers at any point in time. “Even if we passed this bill, it will have not have an effect on the board even if the 12th member is not yet seated. We are not getting in the way… we are giving (the school board) a tool. We are not forcing the election,” he said.

In December, Cheryl Pasteur and Rod McMillion, who represent the second and seventh council districts, respectively, each received six votes, while interim Chairwoman Causey and Vice Chairwoman Henn received five.

Some community members felt that Causey and Henn should have conceded the race to Pasteur and McMillion in the name of good sportsmanship since six is greater than five, even if it is not seven.

Attorney and former Democratic state senatorial candidate, Robbie Leonard, said Causey and Henn should have stepped aside.

“The board is supposed to be comprised of 12 members. The current rule requiring 7 votes to win seems like the intent of the rule was that a simple majority is required. Seven would technically be the smallest possible majority in a full board,” Leonard said.

“Here, we now have leadership that is operating with a minority of votes. Once the vote was cast, the side with 5 votes should have realized that they are short of the required 7, but more importantly less than the winning side. We should teach our kids to lose gracefully. That didn’t happen here,” he said.

The community frustration and deadlocked board – missing the required seven votes – is what Ebersole and his cosponsors said they were responding to and which led to the late-filed legislation.  He said they are attempting to fix the problem that even future school boards could face when they are seeking to elect their new leadership.

But the concurrent events – of a 12th member on the verge of appointment, along with the quickly moving legislation which would change the required votes to six on an 11-member school board – has created the appearance of quickly changing the game board to favor certain winners, some say.  And when the first hearing was scheduled less than one day in advance, constituents responded.

Baltimore County resident, Debra Sullivan, posted letters she exchanged with House Delegation Chair Pat Young’s office, demanding an opportunity for public input during Friday’s meeting which was pulled on Thursday.

Sullivan said that she and other members of the public were caught off guard when last week’s bill hearing came and went, scheduled, she said, without sufficient notice.  Of the decision to pull the vote and meeting from the agenda scheduled for Friday, Sullivan said, “I am happy they pulled the vote. It is very unfair that no one knew it was on the agenda, or we would have been there. Had they had a vote tomorrow, it would look like there is no opposition. The delegation would have proceeded to approve it, especially since the Speaker’s name is on it, as a sponsor. It is not fair to slide a bill in the back door, for Annapolis to affect how the BCPS BOE voting process works. It isn’t fair to the 115k students that Annapolis is getting involved at all.”

As of Thursday evening, a petition directed to all state senators and delegates, called “Protect the Independence of the Baltimore County Board of Education” garnered over 330 votes in opposition to the bill.

Ebersole said he has been open to the public’s input and is still weighing the options and whether he will amend the bill to remove its emergency status.

And he said that the hard work done by the nominating commission to field applications by those interested in serving on the school board makes it difficult to fill vacancies quickly because it takes time to complete the process before names are provided to the governor. For these reasons, he said, the legislation was designed to be helpful to the school board when it encounters vacancies.

But Sullivan said it’s a Baltimore County — and not Annapolis — problem to solve. “They have tried to blindside concerned citizens with all of this. The system has worked for many years,” she said.

“Just because someone is not happy with the results of a vote, they want to change the process. There were eleven people present the day of the vote. Ms. Pasteur only had six people support her. In that case she needs to work harder to gain the support of another person. To change the rules is absurd and such an abuse of the legislative process.”

Update: The cross-filed bills will be heard simultaneously on Tuesday, March 10, at 1:00 pm in front of the House Ways and Means Committee, and the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee.

Speakers who wish to testify must sign up on kiosk screens outside of the committee rooms between 9:00 am and 12:00 noon on the day of the hearings. Written testimony, that is being given orally, must be submitted via flash drive prior to 12 noon. Speakers who are giving oral testimony only — and not reading testimony — must only sign up to speak.

Those requiring assistance with submitting written testimony should reach out to their respective representatives.
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