Cumberland Times-News

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February 20, 2014

Ex-officio bill wins key committee vote

CUMBERLAND — A state bill which would abolish the requirement that county commissioners sit on the Allegany and Garrett County boards of education has won a key Senate committee vote, advancing the bill for consideration by the full Senate. A companion bill is being heard by a House Committee.

The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee voted 11-0 to issue a favorable report for the bill. Sen. George Edwards, the sponsor of the bill, said that he thinks the bill should sail through the legislature and make the docket for the governor’s signature.

If the position is abolished, it would eliminate a major recent source of battles between Allegany County commissioners and the Allegany County Board of Education.

Both county commissioners and board of education members were consulted and are on board with the move, Edwards has said. Only three counties in the state have an ex-officio board member. Bills that only affect a few localities are typically easier to pass, Edwards said.

“We offered to abolish the position last session,” Allegany County Commissioner Bill Valentine has said. County commissioners have made it clear that in the future, when school board members attend and speak at county commission meetings, they will be required to answer questions from the public. Board of education members do not respond directly to issues or questions raised by citizens during their board meetings.

A commissioner in both counties holds an ex-officio seat on the board as a nonvoting member, but with the right to attend closed executive sessions.

The Garrett County Board of Education includes five elected members, the chairman or vice chairman of the county commissioners who serves as the ex-officio member, and one student member, who also does not have a vote.

In Allegany County, the board consists of five elected members, the chairman of the Allegany County Commissioners (or the chairman’s designee) who serves as the ex-officio member, and a student member, also without a vote.

Neither Allegany nor Garrett counties will be affected financially by the change, according to the fiscal and policy note prepared about the bill by the Department of Legislative Services. “Allegany County advises that because of the proximity of county government offices to the location for board of education meetings (which generally occur once per month), there are typically no travel or other expense reimbursements under current law for the chairman’s participation in board of education meetings. Therefore, the bill will not alter county finances. Also, Garrett County advises that the bill will not affect county finances,” the fiscal and policy note states.            

Recently, Allegany County commissioners accused the board of education of holding illegal executive sessions. Commissioners also said they will no longer send a commissioner to school board meetings. It was at the beginning of 2013 that county commission president Mike McKay suggested abolishing the ex-officio position, with board of education members opposing getting rid of it. Since that idea was broached by McKay, the ex-officio position has become the latest in a series of battles over the past few years between county commissioners and members of the board of education.

School board members have said that it is not ethical to have the ex-officio present during sensitive personnel issues and funding negotiations. Conflicts arise when the agenda includes collective bargaining and personnel items, board members have said.

The Senate committee vote took place Tuesday at the General Assembly in Annapolis. The ex-officio bills are Senate Bill 383 and House Bill 343.

Matthew Bieniek can be contacted at mbieniek@times-news.com.

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