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Bill would allow teachers' spouses on school board

Friday - 3/2/2012, 6:00am  ET


ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- State legislators are looking to roll back an unusual Maryland law that prohibits spouses of Frederick County public school teachers from serving on the local Board of Education.

A majority of the eight state senators and delegates from Frederick County support lifting the restriction, which applies only to their local school board. Sen. Ron Young argues that the ban, the only one of its kind in Maryland, stifles the democratic process in elections for the Frederick County Board of Education.

"This is a democracy. Anybody ought to be able to put themselves out to run for anything," the Frederick County lawmaker said.

The legal firewall that dates from 1998 is unnecessary, Young said. If concerns exist about the partiality of a candidate, the voters can choose not to cast a ballot for that person.

Of the 6,004 Frederick County Public Schools employees, 3,252 are teachers, according to school officials.

Barring those married to Frederick County school administrators or teachers from serving on the Board of Education disqualifies a crowd of people, some lawmakers say.

One vocal opponent of the restrictions, Omari Patterson, ran for the county school board in 2010, although his wife at the time worked for North Frederick Elementary School.

"If we're going to prevent spouses of teachers from serving on the Board of Education, we should take away that option from spouses of county workers and state workers. We can go on and on with the restrictions," said Patterson, who lost the race, although he said he'd consider running again in the future.

Angie Fish, president of the county school board, said her panel has not taken an official stance on Young's bill. While she understands the advantages of a repeal, she said, board members have to make difficult budget decisions, which might present a challenge for someone married to a teacher.

The spousal limitations flowed from a past decision by the county school board to pass a budget with built-in salary increases for employees.

At the time, two board members had spouses who worked in the school system and their votes in favor of the budget raised conflict-of-interest concerns.

One of them, Earl Robbins, who served on the school board for about 10 years in the 1980s and '90s, said he consulted school board ethics officials and got the green light to vote on the raises. The salary increase extended across the board rather than just applying to his wife or her school, so Robbins said he was comfortable supporting it.

Such decisions are not unique to school board officials, he said.

"Our legislators are in positions where they have to vote for issues that affect their families," he said. "When we elect them, we think they have the integrity to exclude themselves from a vote if it's going to benefit them and their families personally."

State Sen. David Brinkley thinks differently about the incident that prompted the restrictions on school officials.

"That person voted ... in something which that household profited from. And that's the very definition of an ethical violation: Do you stand to gain and to profit financially from a decision?" the Frederick County lawmaker said.

To keep personal biases from tainting school board votes, Brinkley believes the current restriction is healthy, and he resists Young's efforts to pull it from state law.

Frederick County's legislative delegation has favored the bill by a 6-2 vote, with Brinkley and Delegate Donald Elliott opposed.

The bill to withdraw the ban made it through a Senate committee and onto the floor Wednesday, but Brinkley successfully lobbied to delay until Tuesday any additional discussion of the legislation.

An identical bill filed by the county's House delegation is still in committee.