Opinion: Is it a good idea to increase the powers of student members of school councils?

Photo from Pixabay.com by elizabethaferry.

By Gene Harrington

The writer is a resident of Ellicott City.

The Maryland House of Delegates Ways and Means Committee will hear testimony on Thursday about legislation that will fundamentally change the makeup and mechanics of nearly every local school board in the Old Line state.

Specifically, the panel will formally begin its review of House Bill 797 – a measure expanding the voting rights of student members of local school boards and will formally add student members to boards that do not legally recognize them.

Many school boards across the country have a student representative who participates in public meetings and exercises advisory votes. Additionally, California, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia all have laws regarding student representation on school boards. Maryland, however, is considered the only state in the nation that allows 16- and 17-year-old student members to cast binding votes on many critical issues.

Currently, state law allows student school board members from eight jurisdictions — Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Charles, Harford, Howard, Montgomery, and Prince George counties and the city of Baltimore — to issue binding votes. Most Marylanders are certainly unaware of this fact.

The Anne Arundel student member already has the same status as the adult voting members while the authority of the Montgomery County student member matches what is proposed by HB797. The power of other student members with binding votes varies by jurisdiction, but most do not have the power to vote on budget issues, collective bargaining, school closings and reopenings, redistricting and personnel matters.

Maryland’s education code designates positions for nonvoting student members in 12 other local school boards. Laws governing the remaining four jurisdictions — Kent, Somerset, Washington and Wicomico counties — do not expressly reserve a slot for student members, but those jurisdictions have informally added nonvoting student members to their councils. Thus, every school district in Maryland allows students to meaningfully and meaningfully participate in how the school system is governed, even if they cannot formally vote.

Under HB797, student members in all 23 counties in the state and the city of Baltimore would have the power to vote on virtually all matters brought before the school board. This includes, among other things, capital and operating budgets; student disciplinary affairs; school closures, reopenings and limits; collective bargaining decisions; appointment, salary and evaluation of county school superintendent; all other personnel matters; school calendar and curriculum; and appeals of special education placements.

The legislation differs greatly from previous bills that have been passed over the years allowing voting rights for student members in the above eight jurisdictions. These measures have been sponsored and directed by legislators in these jurisdictions. In the case of HB797, it was written by Majority Leader Eric Luedkte of Montgomery County, not by delegates or senators representing jurisdictions without voting student members.

Many local school boards in Maryland have five to seven adult members. Adding student members to these councils has or would create an even number of members and by expanding student member voting rights only increases the likelihood of tied votes and traffic jams.

Also, some counties – such as Howard County, which has eight members, require five votes to pass on issues on which the student member can vote even if there are only six or seven members present.

Imagine how dysfunctional local school boards will be when student members can vote on every issue. Additionally, some of the smaller, more rural counties have two nonvoting student members on their school boards, meaning two of the seven members will be teenagers who cannot legally vote in state and federal elections.

It seems dishonest and intellectually dishonest for state lawmakers to push so aggressively for laws granting student membership the right to vote based on other policies they have put in place.

For many years, 16-year-olds in Maryland had full driving privileges once they passed their driving test. In 1998, however, Maryland enacted a graduated driver’s license law limiting the driving rights of 16- and 17-year-olds after a series of serious car crashes involving teenage drivers. Subsequent legislation passed in 2005 and 2009 prohibited 16- and 17-year-olds from driving between midnight and 5 a.m. and carrying non-direct family passengers without the supervision of someone 21 or older, prohibited drivers under 18 from using cell phones and raised the age for obtaining a driver’s license to 18.

These laws were not enacted because 16- and 17-year-olds are not physically able to drive, but rather because lawmakers questioned their judgment and felt they were also under pressure from their peers, which led to poor decision-making.

As such, it seems irreconcilable that the same Maryland lawmakers who don’t trust or believe that 16 and 17 year olds are responsible enough to drive two or three friends a few miles to practice sports somehow think that these same people have the prudence to vote on billion dollar budgets and other complex and controversial issues.

Maryland’s education code prohibits teachers, principals, and others subject to the authority of local boards of education from serving on such bodies. This law was enacted to avoid the obvious conflicts of interest that would arise if school employees served on the school board. Only students are exempt from this restriction. Still, voting student members in some counties proposed having no final exams or assignments. The adult members of these councils did not even notice that the student member taking such an action might have the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Expanding the issues on which a student member votes will only increase the potential for conflicts of interest. Just imagine a student member voting to discipline a student they know or go to school with or voting on a program or redistricting that might impact a sibling or friend.

Finally, it is also necessary to ask how independent a student really is when he must obtain the permission of his parents and the blessing of the school administrators to present himself as a student member of the council.

For years, then state delegate and state senator and now attorney general of Maryland, Brian Frosh opposed student members having a binding vote and the power to vote on budget matters.

“They’re great kids and they’re really sincere and really competent, but that’s undemocratic,” then-Senator Frosh told The Gazette in March 2011. Frosh went on to point out that the County of Montgomery is elected by students who are ineligible voters, do not pay county taxes, and may not be able to participate in contentious debates such as redistricting.

“The hardest part of our job here is saying no and you don’t learn that until you graduate from high school,” Frosh told The Gazette.

Having 16 and 17 year olds as public servants is the classic example of putting the cart before the horse. Teens should have experience voting in a state election before voting for a budget or a controversial issue, such as keeping school resource officers in schools. Indeed, it certainly seems more logical to grant 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote in national elections before electing them to public office.

In fact, HB797 and other narrower bills granting increased authority to student members in Howard and Baltimore counties and the city of Baltimore are under consideration, although the Maryland Court of Appeals is currently considering a case challenging the constitutionality of the state law allowing Howard County students to member the right to cast binding votes.

Under the law, 11- to 17-year-olds elect a 16- or 17-year-old to serve on the Howard County School Board. The plaintiffs — two Howard County parents — argue the law is invalid because the state constitution requires voters and elected officials to be at least 18 years old. (Maryland courts have repeatedly ruled county school boards to be state agencies, even though they have a local flavor.) The court is expected to issue its ruling by the end of the summer.

A decision overturning the law would most certainly impact other student membership laws – particularly the Montgomery County Student Member Act – which is also elected by the county’s sixth through 11.and– students.

Regardless of the Court of Appeals decision, it seems fair and appropriate to ask voters the express question of whether 16 and 17 year olds can vote in statewide elections, 11 to 17 year olds can elect or select a student member of a local school board, and whether 16 and 17 year olds can play such a role.

After all, if issues such as sports betting and the legalization of recreational marijuana are important enough to be decided by state voters, one would think it is as vital an issue as to determine who can choose the members of local school boards and who can sit on these boards of directors. the bodies would also be an issue for voters in the state to weigh in on.

Hopefully state lawmakers will soon give that opportunity to the citizens of Maryland.