SALISBURY — Public sentiments on both sides of the debate were expressed Tuesday when the possibility of converting Wicomico County’s Board of Education to an elected body was mentioned at a County Council meeting.
The major question brought up during the discussion was whether the council would stand by its original decision to request a straw poll of citizens on the issue.
The public comments were in response to a House Bill recently proposed by Delegate Norm Conway. The bill requested that a straw poll be set up to gauge opinion on whether Wicomico’s school board members should be appointed by the governor or elected by vote like other county officials.
However, the bill that Conway introduced contained a third option to be placed on the straw poll, a “hybrid” board, with some members elected and others appointed.
While some of those who spoke up in defense of an appointed body Tuesday saw the idea of a hybrid board as an acceptable compromise, those on the election side agreed that it wasn’t enough. Several claimed that electing a school board made the members accountable to the public in a way government appointments did not. Therefore, they reasoned that a hybrid board only provided “partial accountability.”
Former Board of Education Vice President Dr. Eddie Boyd disagreed, saying, “I’ve certainly always felt accountable to the citizens of Wicomico County.” He argued that allowing the governor to appoint board members kept gender, race and class varied.
“We had a diverse board,” Boyd said of his time served.
On the other hand, Boyd worried that allowing citizens to elect members might leave part of the community without representation. He used the council itself as an example.
“You lack diversity,” he told them. “You don’t look like Wicomico County.”
“I disagree,” responded Councilman Bob Culver.
The rest of the council agreed with Culver, pointing out that all residents of the Wicomico had an equal vote in who got elected.
Mary Ashanti, president of the county’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), also questioned whether choosing school board members by vote would really be fair.
“It seems like it’s only democracy when you get what you want,” she said.
Ashanti voiced the concern that moving away from a system of appointments could “unduly influence and confuse the citizens.” However, while she stated she would prefer to have board members appointed, she admitted she was willing to compromise and asked that the council support having a third option on the straw poll.
Resident Kay Gibson urged the council to stand behind the original request for a two-option straw poll, claiming the hybrid option was only “an attempt to dilute the issue.” She was one of several members of the public who were unwilling to compromise on a board being partially appointed/partially elected.
Councilman Joe Holloway was intent on staying with a simple poll.
“I plan on staying on course with the school board vote,” said Holloway after the public comments were finished. The rest of the council echoed the statement.
“I think we need to stand firm with our vote,” said Councilmember Stevie Prettyman.
Although the council did not weigh in on the heart of the issue, a letter asking Conway to remove the hybrid option was sent out Wednesday.