Bill To Increase Power Of Student School Board Member Suffers 11th-Hour Defeat

Questions from conservative senator stalls final vote as legislature adjourns for year

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Sen. Cheryl Kagan plans to reintroduce the legislation next year

via Cheryl Kagan on Facebook

Update – 3 p.m. April 16 – For the second time in three years, legislation to increase the power of the student member of the Montgomery County Board of Education has suffered an 11th hour death—almost literally—in the waning moments of the annual session of the Maryland General Assembly.

Republican Sen. Michael Hough, a conservative who represents portions of Frederick and Carroll counties, raised questions about the bill—which would have applied only to Montgomery County—late Monday, just as the legislation was brought to the Senate floor about 15 minutes prior to midnight for final passage. Immediately after Hough finished talking, the clock ran out on this year’s session, since, by statute, the legislature must adjourn by midnight on the session's final day. To comply with the law, a motion was made to adjourn sine die before a vote on the bill could take place.

“I am disappointed the bill did not move forward and get enacted this year, but I look forward to working with students in Montgomery next year to make sure it passes early in the session, and that we’re not cut off by the clock,” said Sen. Cheryl Kagan, D-Rockville, a leading backer of the legislation. As a county high school student, Kagan voted in the first election for the student school board member more than three decades ago.

Hough did not respond to a request for comment today.

This year marked the first time the student member of the board—or SMOB—bill had been considered in the General Assembly since 2012, when then-Democratic Sen. Brian Frosh, a liberal representing Bethesda-based District 16, used a procedural maneuver to kill the legislation in the session’s closing hours. Frosh, now attorney general, vehemently objected at the time to placing additional voting power—over matters such as operating and capital budgets and collective bargaining—in the hands of a 17- or 18-year old student.

No one from the current Montgomery County legislative delegation publicly raised such questions this year: The bill cleared the House of Delegates in mid-March by a 125-10 margin, with all 24 members of the county’s House delegation voting in favor; it then was approved unanimously by the county Senate delegation in early April, and sent to the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee—where Monday it received a unanimous vote to send it to the Senate floor.

“I think it’s a bill whose time has come,” Sen. Nancy King, D-Montgomery Village, who chairs the county Senate delegation, declared last week.

Nonetheless, there were private concerns about the bill voiced among some delegation members in the wake of the intense maneuvering earlier this year over whether to extend the contract of former Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr.

While the student member of the eight-member school board already has the power to vote on a superintendent’s contract absent additional legislation, the split in the school board over Starr’s future—potentially placing the student member in a position to cast a deciding vote—raised questions about the wisdom of putting additional responsibilities and pressures on the student member. These concerns appeared to have slowed down movement on the bill as the legislative clock ticked in recent weeks.

In addition to voting on budgets and collective bargaining, the legislation would have given the student member a role in changes to school population boundaries and school closings. At least one other major jurisdiction in the state, Anne Arundel County, now accords similar powers to the student school board member.

In Montgomery County, there has been a student member of the school board—elected by middle and high school students—since the late 1970s, with the student member enjoying limited voting rights since 1989. Proponents of the SMOB bill have cited the diligence of those selected as student board members in pushing for expanded voting powers over the past decade.

Meanwhile, legislative sources suggested that, in the waning hours of this year’s session, the SMOB bill may have become politically entangled with another Montgomery County “local” bill—a somewhat controversial proposal by the county’s House delegation to require special elections for unexpected school board vacancies. Out of 20 local bills put forth by the county House delegation this year, the SMOB and special election bills were the two whose fate remained unresolved in the last week of the session. And both were being considered almost simultaneously by the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs panel.

Del. Al Carr, D-Kensington, the lead sponsor of the special election bill, defended it as placing the school board on the same footing as the Montgomery County Council in the event of a vacancy. At present, when a school board vacancy occurs, it is filled by the remaining members of the board. In the case of the County Council, a special election must be held if the vacancy occurs in the first three years of a four-year term.

But the school board special election bill became a point of tension between the county’s House and Senate delegation after the proposal cleared the full House on a 140-0 vote in mid-March. King, a former school board member, quickly voiced her opposition, and the current school board was said to be opposed to the legislation as well.

Concerns were also raised about its cost: County Board of Elections officials estimated that a special school board election, in which all of the county’s registered voters would be eligible to participate, could cost up to $1.3 million.

In response, Carr lobbied the county’s eight-member Senate delegation to move the bill, and—on a 5-3 vote last week, with King, Kagan and Sen. Brian Feldman, D-Potomac, opposed— the Senate delegation agreed to send the special election bill to the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. It emerged from that panel unanimously on Monday, but with what Carr described as a “clarifying amendment” requested by the Maryland Board of Elections.

On the Senate floor Monday night, Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore, who chairs the education panel, delayed a vote on the special election bill—saying she needed a letter from the county’s Senate delegation that it approved of the bill in its amended form. As this year’s session entered its final hours, that turned out to be as far as the bill got.

“It’s one of those mysterious things that happens just before sine die,” observed one General Assembly source. “A bill dies, and there are no fingerprints on the body.”

Editor's note: The above story has been modified from its original version to reflect the fact that the legislation was taken up in the Senate shortly before the statutory midnight deadline for ending this year's legislative session. The earlier version had incorrectly reported that the bill died shortly after midnight.

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