Process for removing local school board members proposed

Delaware State News | by Matt Bittle

DOVER — A proposal currently circulating in Legislative Hall would allow the unelected State Board of Education to remove members of local school boards.

However, the main sponsor says he is open to changing the method by which members would be expelled and is considering different options before filing the measure.

The draft bill would allow the Delaware Board of Education to, with the approval of the governor, boot any member off a local school board.

Asked what is driving the proposal, Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, said there is currently no way to remove anyone who has been elected to a school board.

Members of school boards occasionally make “headlines” for the wrong reasons, he said, pointing to Christina School District which is in his district. In 2014, Shirley Sutton-Saffer, who was then on the local board, was accused of harassing a bus driver and using a racial slur.

“We realized, ‘You know what, we can’t do anything,’” but wait until the five-year term ends, Rep. Baumbach said.

The draft bill would require a 60-percent supermajority for removal for “misconduct,” “incompetency” or “willful neglect of duty.”

The state board consists of seven members, meaning five would have to vote in the affirmative for expulsion to take place, although the governor would have to also support it.

The procedure for notifying a local board member of the pending vote is spelled out in the draft bill and requires the state board to hold a hearing if the accused requests it. A local board representative expelled through this process can appeal to the Superior Court.

Nothing currently in the bill would prevent a board member removed through this method from running for the seat again.

Rep. Baumbach said he looked at policies other states have for removing board members and opted to model his plan after Maryland’s system. He considered filing the measure in June but decided to hold off because there would be little time to debate it before the six-month break.

The proposal has spurred anger from some quarters.

Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, in an email blasted the plan, calling it “a frightening overreach of authority, poorly thought out and constitutionally questionable.”

He objected to the notion an unelected body whose members are appointed by the governor could “compromise and negate the intentions and wishes of the voters who elected said board members.”

Donna Johnson, executive director of the Delaware State Board of Education, said the board has no formal position on the measure, but some members think there may be a better way to remove local representatives.

The state board is not entirely independent from local boards, as it collaborates with them, Ms. Johnson noted.

The Public Integrity Commission, which is made up of seven Delawareans appointed by the governor, may be a better choice, Ms. Johnson said. She added that recall votes could also be an option.

Rep. Baumbach, for his part, expressed openness to changing the method, although he said when he has asked some critics what would be a better method for removing a member, he’s been met with “crickets chirping.”

Despite some opposition, he strongly believes there needs to be a way to prematurely end a term if necessary.

“I’m disappointed some people are dismissing the very serious problem of having a school board member that deserves to be off based on misconduct or not doing their duty,” he said.

Sean Christiansen, president of the Capital School District Board of Education, said he sees pros and cons with the measure.

“Having some checks and balances as far as the way members would act or what’s defined in their roles and responsibilities, I don’t have a problem with that,” he said.

But Mr. Christiansen did express concerns about the unelected state board removing a local official, speculating members could do so as part of a “power play.”

He also said the actions for which someone could be removed need to be clearly defined.

The Delaware School Boards Association has not taken a position on the proposal. A spokesman for Gov. John Carney wrote in an email: “The Governor has not spoken with the bill’s sponsors about the legislation. He looks forward to following legislative discussion on the bill.”

Rep. Baumbach has already filed a bill that would cut the length of service for school board members from five years to four. An identical proposal failed to pass in 2016.

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