Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Education Reformation

Some issues simply require additional time for sober reflection.

When Delegate Vanessa Atterbeary and Councilman Jon Weinstein announced their collaboration on a bill that would turn the “all at large” seven member Howard County Board of Education into a body that would feature five district and two at-large seats, my visceral response was that it sounded like a smart reform measure. 

But distracted by all of the glitz and glam that the Metro Center area has to offer, I found myself lacking the time to give an appropriate level of thought to the proposal. 

Two months later, I think their bill makes a great deal of sense.  First, it promotes awareness and accountability.  Having one person serving as one’s district-based Board of Education member, along with two at-large members for everyone, makes it easier for people to get to know their school board member.  It makes individual advocacy efforts by parents, students, and other stakeholders easier.  Have an issue with a school in, for example, Elkridge? If the Atterbeary/Weinstein (Weinstein/Atterbeary?) legislation were to be enacted, a neighborhood-based board member becomes the logical point of contact.  This should also promote geographic diversity among the board membership and, hopefully, a greater familiarity with the unique opportunities and challenges facing all of the schools across our growing County.

Frankly, the same rationale applies to shifting from multi-member state delegate districts to single-member districts, but I will revisit that issue on another day.

Back to my main point, there are many entities that exercise policy-making functions whereby the individual members are elected by a smaller constituency to represent a larger interest.  This is how every state legislature works.  This is how Congress works.  This is how our County Council works. [Note: an earlier version of this post incorrectly cited MoCo's BoE as an example here.  Are there elected Boards of Education with similar arrangements? I am going to go with almost certainly.  Do I have time to look them up? No, but feel free to do so]. [Second note: thinking about local examples, I believe that at least some of the Harford County Board of Education seats are district-based.  I think they have a hybrid that includes elected and appointed as well as at-large and district board members.  Again, you may want to check on that.].

My contention is this: the partial reorganization of the Howard County Board of Education would not invite an epoch of rampant provincialism.   Everyone who holds the office would know that their duty is to act in the best interests of the County as a whole.  Moreover, as is frequently pointed out, majorities are required for the Board to act.  Thus, it is difficult to make a compelling argument that having multiple district-based seats would lead to a “less equitable” distribution of resources anymore than saying that the current arrangement, with representation from only three of the five Council Districts, leads to such inequities.  

Bottom line:  as a measure designed to promote the connection between the public and the policy-setting body, the Atterbeary-Weinstein plan is the right move for Howard County’s public education system.  If you haven’t already, let your elected representatives know.  Tell ‘em Sparty sent you.

Stay tuned, as more will follow.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

On Poverty, Progress, and the CAC

There has been much discussion in recent days on the fundamental question, “What does it mean to be American?” 

Personally, I believe one hallmark of the American character is a certain generosity of spirit that stems from a recognition that we are all imperfect yet we want to improve not only our lot, but the well-being of those we call our neighbors.

Those of us in Howard County are fortunate insofar as many of our neighbors, from a pocketbook perspective, are not struggling.   But “many” is not all, and when it comes to poverty, some is too many.

Hunger is non-partisan, as is poverty.  The eradication of both, in a county of plenty, can and should be a top-of-mind issue, and goal, for 2016. 

In terms of numbers, 5.3% of Howard County’s population live in poverty, this translates to thousands of our fellow denizens.  Moreover, almost one in four (22.5%) single women who are the head of their household and who have children under five live below the poverty line.

As careful readers will recall from early 2015, before my new position brought me to the functional equivalent of a literary Elba, I wanted to spend more time talking about organizations doing good and important work in our communities.  With that, along with the aforementioned challenges foremost in mind, I want to spend a minute talking about the Community Action Council of Howard County (http://www.cac-hc.org/get-involved/).  

Feel free to click on that link.  I can wait a moment... 

Back?  Excellent.  The Community Action Council (CAC for short) has been on the frontlines of “helping people help themselves” as their President, Bita Dayhoff, describes in a letter outlining the mission of the organization.  This is key.  The CAC is focused not only on helping out those most in need of help, in terms of such needs as housing, energy, childhood education, and food, but also assisting them on the road to self-sufficiency.  And this is not a seasonal focus, but one that is addressed “24/7/365” as the saying goes.  Moreover, they help literally thousands of people, every single year.

The spectrum of services offered by the Community Action Council is broad yet bound by the common thread of helping those of us who are in a tough spot.  The dedication of this organization, their staff, volunteers, and partners, deserves recognition.  Beyond that, the questions must be raised, what systems can be put into place to help groups like the CAC achieve their mission?  What can be done, by the private and public sectors alike, to help ensure that all of our neighbors have full access to the promise of Howard County?

As long as poverty and hunger (and related issues) afflict our fellow residents, I plan on revisiting these topics throughout the New Year. I am hopeful that our collective can-do spirit, another American hallmark, will help yield creative and practical solutions to these challenges.  By building on the work of groups like the Community Action Council, I am optimistic that we can find novel ways to help our neighbors.

Stay tuned, as more will follow.