SALISBURY — Citizens of Wicomico County will get a chance to weigh in on whether or not the county should move to an elected school board, as opposed to the current appointed board, at the next general election.
The Wicomico County Council voted in favor of holding a “straw ballot” asking residents to vote for either an elected school board or one appointed by the governor. The ballot will be available during the general election next November. Results from the ballot will give legislators a better understanding of the opinion of the county at large and could lead to a transition from an appointed to an elected board if the public supports the move. However, Council President Gail Bartkovich reminded the assembly that the results of the ballot will be for information only and will have no legal impact.
“This is an opinion poll. It’s not really binding,” she said.
Instead, the information will be forwarded to state delegates, where any changes to the current system will need to be made in Annapolis.
“It wouldn’t simply be a matter of the council saying this is how it’s going to be,” said Bartkovich.
Feelings on the ballot were mixed within the council. Councilwoman Sheree Sample-Hughes advocated holding a public hearing on the issue before deciding to use the ballot during next year’s general election. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Council Vice President Joe Holloway and Councilman Bob Culver felt that too much time has already been spent dancing around the issue.
“I feel like, in a way, we’re taking a step backwards,” said Holloway.
“We’ve already sent this to our legislators back in February,” agreed Culver. “How often are we going to keep changing the wording?”
Holloway suggested that strong language be used to resolve the question once and for all. He moved that the word “fully” be placed before “elected” to stress to voters that if the county switched to an elected board, there would be no appointed seats. If public opinion still favored going the elected route, Holloway felt that would be an end to the issue.
The majority of the council agreed with Holloway’s motion in a 5-2 vote. Sample-Hughes voted against the motion, maintaining that there should be a public hearing. Bartkovich also voted against the motion, explaining that the language was already strong enough in her opinion. However, Bartkovich did side with the majority in favor of using the newly amended straw ballot during the next general election. Sample-Hughes was the only dissenting voice, and the motion passed 6-1.
Though the motion had already passed, the council did give members of the public a chance to weigh in on the straw ballot.
Mary Ashanti, president of Wicomico’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), asked that the council consider going with a less two-sided straw poll.
“We ask that the language be amended to have three options,” she said.
Ashanti suggested that, besides the “elected” or “appointed” options, a “hybrid” choice be made available. A hybrid school board would be a mix of representatives elected by the public, and those appointed by the governor, with the majority of five elected, two appointed. The notion has been floated by the council in the past, but was labeled as too confusing and a half-measure.
Ann Suthowski, a teacher of 31 years, urged the council to hurry the process toward the end result of having an elected school board.
“Wicomico County has always been a leader on the shore,” she said. “Right now, we are behind these other counties [with elected boards].… “Let’s be a leader again.”
G.A. Harrison agreed, saying to the council, “This is the first baby step.”