In 2012, the Anne Arundel County Public School System spent more than $1 billion, employed more than 10,000 individuals, and taught more than 75,000 students–and its student member of the Board of Education (known as the “SMOB”) had the same voting rights as the adult board members.

Unfortunately, due to deficient electoral safeguards, elections for SMOB bristle with temptations for corruption.  Anne Arundel’s student election system presumes that the adults who oversee it will not abuse their power.  But for high stakes student elections, that assumption is unreasonable.

As the only school district in the United States that grants the SMOB full voting rights, student organizations throughout the country hail Anne Arundel County’s SMOB as a model.  But under the public radar, its SMOB election process has become deceptive, with the original bottom-up vision of student democracy transformed into top-down, superintendent control.

Nominally, members of the County’s student organization, known as “CRASC,” continue to elect the SMOB.  But like elections in Russia, appearances can deceive.  The nomination process was restructured to give administrators a veto.  If more than five students submit applications to run for SMOB (an easy number for administrators to recruit), the nomination process is taken from students and given to three individuals: the SMOB, CRASC’s president, and CRASC’s adult coordinator (who reports to the superintendent).

The coordinator only has one of three votes but may have great hidden leverage.  For example, the SMOB and CRASC president may compete for a scholarship administered by a foundation that claims to be independent but is located at school board headquarters, is perceived to be highly influenced by school administrators, and awards scholarships after the SMOB nomination.  The coordinator also oversees all CRASC elections and can leverage students’ fears of a powerful adult’s disapproval.  Since the coordinator is in the room with the other two interviewers during the private SMOB interview process, his or her power may intimidate the student leadership and keep them from speaking and voting honestly.

Having a SMOB with full voting rights can strengthen the Board of Education–but only if the SMOB election process cannot be corrupted by adults acting improperly.  Otherwise, it will be necessary to reduce the SMOB’s powers.   Advocates of preserving the current power of the SMOB should recognize that with adult-like power comes adult-like responsibility.  Accordingly, school board electoral safeguards should apply equally to adults and students.

The superintendent shouldn’t be allowed to take surreptitious control of the SMOB nominating process.  School system employees shouldn’t be allowed to administer SMOB elections without independent, outside supervision.  No SMOB should be eligible to receive a scholarship that a reasonable person would believe induces a conflict of interest.  Any violation of the above rules should be subject to prosecution by Maryland’s state prosecutor.  It is a blatant conflict of interest to expect the superintendent and school board to police themselves on such issues.

I recommend a SMOB electoral system for Anne Arundel County and elsewhere structured as follows: students would get on the ballot by getting a minimum number of signatures from fellow high school students.  The local board of election would administer the voting by emailing electronic ballots to students just as they now do to overseas citizens and military personnel.  The ballots would include electronic links to candidate websites, including resumes and position statements.  They would also incorporate ranked choice voting, an advanced voting system facilitated by modern technology.  Independent civic organizations would conduct and webcast candidate debates, just as they do for adult elections.

More generally, it is necessary that Hatch Act like safeguards regarding public employee political activities apply to school systems with non-partisan elections.  Simply because school elections are non-partisan shouldn’t give them immunity from such safeguards.  An independent investigation of comparable thoroughness to the one that brought down County Executive John Leopold might reveal that the county government was a model of ethical probity compared to the county school system.   A good place to start might be the relatives of school board members who work for the school system.

If we don’t tolerate corrupt electoral systems for adults, we shouldn’t tolerate them for students.

–J.H. Snider is president of and a non-residential fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.  Two of his children have served as SMOB to the Anne Arundel County Board of Education.

Source: Snider, J.H., Anne Arundel’s Next Superintendent Should Restore Integrity to SMOB ElectionsEye On Annapolis, June 27, 2013.