Bill Seeks to Limit State Superintendent Role in Hiring of Local School Leaders

Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam (D-Baltimore County) has introduced a bill, which would allow the state superintendent to block a local board’s superintendent appointee only on very narrow grounds. Maryland Senate Democrats photo

A Baltimore County senator is pursuing a bill that would remove the ability of the state superintendent of schools to disapprove of local school leaders.

The legislation stems from the controversy last year over the Baltimore County school board’s appointment of Interim Superintendent Verletta White. While a majority of the board voted to offer White a multi-year contract, State Superintendent Karen Salmon blocked her appointment in an unprecedented move.

Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam (D-Baltimore County) introduced Senate Bill 222, which would allow the state superintendent to block a local board’s superintendent appointee only on very narrow grounds in the future: for immorality, misconduct in office, insubordination, incompetency or willful neglect of duty.

“A most important function of local boards of education is to choose the local superintendent who will lead the system on a day-to-day basis,” Nathan-Pulliam said.

In the past, local school board picks for superintendent have been sent to the state superintendent for approval in what was widely considered a formality: the state superintendent would sign off so long as the local candidate met basic job requirements such as a relevant degree and job experience described in state law.

“Up until last year, everyone believed that this was the case,” Nathan-Pulliam said.

But last April, in the embers of a scandal that saw the ouster of former superintendent Dallas S. Dance followed by him pleading guilty to perjury and being sentenced to prison for undeclared consulting income, eight of 12 members of the Baltimore County school board voted to extend a four-year contract to White. During the vetting process, it become known that White also had not declared about $12,000 in outside income, but an ethics panel concluded that the financial disclosure forms were confusing, and White said she’d made an honest mistake and re-filed amended disclosures. White additionally promised not to do consulting work while serving as the interim superintendent.

But Salmon rejected the board’s appointment, citing concerns about the ethics case and the school board’s failure to undertake an audit of procurement practices. Nevertheless, the board voted to have White continue as interim superintendent until at least June 2019. This week, The Baltimore Sun reported that the school board voted to begin a nationwide search to permanently fill the position.

On Wednesday, the only people to testify before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee supported the legislation.

Baltimore County Councilman Julian E. Jones Jr. (D) said it wasn’t right for an appointed state superintendent to overrule the will of an elected school board in such a hiring decision, which included months of work and input.

“For that person to make that decision is wrong, disrespectful and it amounts to nothing more than straight tyranny,” Jones said.

John Woolums, director of governmental relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said the association supported the bill and said the state superintendent’s involvement should be limited to ensuring that the proposed local superintendent meets the state qualifications to hold office.

Renee McGuirk Spence, executive director of the Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland, said she couldn’t remember a time during her 23-year career with the Maryland State Department of Education when a state superintendent had rejected a local candidate. PSSAM supports the bill as does the Maryland State Education Association.

But the Maryland State Board of Education — whose members are appointed by the governor — submitted written testimony opposing the bill, with board President Justin M. Hartings writing that the measure “effectively eliminates the State Superintendent’s role in the selection of a county superintendent.”

Accepting the measure as drafted would limit the state superintendent’s role to verifying that a county candidate meets the requirements of state law, which county school boards should be doing anyhow, Hartings wrote.

The role of politics in hiring superintendents was central to the conversation. Nick Stewart, former vice chairman of the Baltimore County school board, said the state superintendent’s role was originally included in state law 100 years ago to ensure that local boards were choosing local superintendents “on the ground of fitness” and not as a political giveaway.

Hartings wrote that measures such as Senate Bill 222 are usually introduced out of “fear that authority may be exercised ‘without bounds or limits.’”

Salmon’s initial decision caused a political dustup between Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and the late Baltimore County executive Kevin B. Kamenetz (D), who was then running for governor.

There is still wiggle room for maneuvering in Nathan-Pulliam’s proposed bill. While a state superintendent could only disapprove of a candidate on certain grounds, the state superintendent could choose not to affirmatively approve the candidate in writing as required by law. In that case, an appointee could serve one-year terms as an interim superintendent but could not be granted a multi-year contract.

Hogan’s reform push

Also on Wednesday, the committee considered Hogan’s proposed Accountability in Education Act of 2019, which would create an inspector general to probe concerns within the state’s education systems. Hogan established an Office of Education Accountability last September, which Executive Director Valerie M. Radomsky said has received more than 300 complaints from parents, teachers and community members from most counties in the state. Hogan’s bill would seek subpoena and investigative powers for a more robust office.

But lawmakers countered that the program would be duplicative when auditing and investigatory powers are already vested with other state and local offices. A similar bill failed to be voted out of committees last year.

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