Anne Arundel County Public Schools are run by a school board that includes eight adult members and one student member. The student member has the same voting rights as the adult members. Currently, the school board has two vacant adult seats, so the student member needs only three adult votes to either pass or veto measures, including the $1 billion budget proposed by the superintendent on Dec. 10.
For votes on union contracts that cumulatively cover more than 80 percent of school system expenditures, the student member may need as few as two or even one vote to veto legislation. That is because three of the six adult board members have immediate family members who work for the school system, and these members should (and sometimes do) recuse themselves on votes regarding budgetary matters covering their family members. Until recently, a majority of adult members (five of eight) had such conflicts of interest.
The student member’s power has rarely been used. For example, during the last six months, the student member has not voted even once against a superintendent’s recommendation.
With so much potential power in the hands of the student member, the superintendent and school board have a strong incentive to ensure that the election process for the student member prevents the election of a “troublemaker.” The problem isn’t that they have such an incentive; it’s that they have the means to act on it.
Maryland’s General Assembly has endowed the student member with immense power while leaving accountability entirely in the hands of a student organization, the Chespeake Regional Association of Student Councils, which is under the thumb of school system administrators. The student organization’s election rules lack even rudimentary safeguards to prevent undue control by such administrators. Even countries whose election systems we ridicule, such as Russia and Iran, have stronger safeguards.
Some differences with adult elections are obvious. For example, student elections are exempt from Anne Arundel County Board of Elections rules and oversight. But the most important ones are less obvious.
These include the assistant superintendent’s appointment and tight control of the student organization’s adviser; the student member nomination system that allows the adviser, the student member and the student organization’s president to meet in secret and choose the three nominees for student member that students will be allowed to vote on; and the dependency of the student member and student president on school staff, notably the superintendent and adviser, for countless perks such as college recommendations and recommendations for school system-sponsored scholarships.
No one would advocate eliminating adult elections because they are flawed. Neither should we eliminate student elections because they are flawed.
As I’ve argued previously, the current appointment process for adult board members is even more corrupt than the appointment process for the student member. At least student candidates face genuine competition and a real election after the nomination stage. And to be fair, the student member wasn’t the only school board member who voted with the superintendent 100 percent of the time during the first six months of the current fiscal year. So did six of the seven adult board members.
The current school board appointment process exquisitely protects the interests of a narrow subset of adults. When, in 2007, the General Assembly last tackled the question of the school board appointment process by creating a school board nominating commission dominated by the interests of school staff, it merely aggravated the problem. When it once again attempts to tackle the problem during its coming legislative session, the danger is that history will repeat itself.
The root problem isn’t the students; it’s the adults. Weakening the student member rather than eliminating the position’s improper dependencies on school administrators would throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Severna Park resident J.H. Snider writes frequently about education policy. He can be reached at snider@eLighthouse.info.
Source: Snider, J.H., Board’s student member lacks independence, Capital, January 9, 2015
Pegher, Kelcie, Record number of people apply for school board, Capital, January 9, 2015
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