Maryland House Majority Leader Erik Luedtke is pushing a bill to dramatically increase the power of student members of boards of education, popularly known as “SMOBs.” The result: SMOBs would have essentially the same voting power as adult board members. (The minor exception is that SMOBs would lack power over the “suspension or dismissal” of school staff.) Currently, only Anne Arundel County grants the student representative the same voting power as adult board members.
The primary problem with bestowing such power on the office of the SMOB is the school staff’s excessive control of that office, making it possibly the most corrupt “elected” office in the United States. The staff’s control over student politicos stems from the students’ dependence on the staff for grades, extracurricular opportunities, college recommendations, and just about everything else that leads to school success. Even some banana republics have administered “elections” with more actual regard for due process.
Staff power over SMOB elections, from the superintendent down, is exercised in the dark without any hope of transparency, partly because of the rules that protect student privacy. Imagine if you were an adult legislator and a special interest group controlled not only your election prospects but the success of your primary job and prospects for your family’s long-term well-being. Who wouldn’t recognize that as an intolerable conflict of interest? Indeed, the purpose of Maryland ethics and election laws is to prevent that type of corruption.
School staff leaders love the office of the SMOB because the student is usually the most reliable supporter of their agenda. It’s illegal for staff to directly serve on the school board that hires them and negotiates their contracts. But controlling the SMOB is probably even better. Whereas the staff member’s conflicts of interest would be blatant, the conflicts of interest embedded in the office of the SMOB have been brilliantly hidden.
The staffs’ love affair with student representatives is indicated by their stealthy lobbying on behalf of the SMOB position. This lobbying includes the mobilization of student advocacy via free use of public buildings, use of school personnel skilled in advocacy and the law during work hours, and free use of school bus transportation to ferry students to the General Assembly. Also indicative is that Majority Leader Luedtke is a former Montgomery County school teacher, was a director of the Montgomery County Education Association, and has a long track record of carrying water on behalf of school staff priorities.
School staff may be pushing this bill now because the last few years of COVID-induced school shutdowns and the resulting impositions on parents have fundamentally changed local school board politics in Maryland. Majority Leader Luedtke’s bill would help shore up the staffs’ control over Maryland school boards.
Along with the students, staff and other General Assembly members who have championed this legislation, Majority Leader Luedtke has failed to act on the most fundamental principle of democracy: that where there is power there must be accountability. Instead, supporters have hidden behind the shibboleths of “student privacy” and “local control.” Student privacy is the excuse for staff secrecy; local control for leaving election rules and administration to local staff. In Anne Arundel County, that includes de facto staff veto power over SMOB nominees and de facto staff election administration powers equivalent to those of the independent Maryland State Board of Elections.
If there is a tragedy here, it is that if the SMOB position were made truly accountable, it would lose the staff’s forceful political support, without which the Majority Leader Luedtke’s bill would never have made it as far as it has. But whereas the student leaders are faced with a Hobson’s choice between democratic accountability and make-or-break staff political support, the general voting public faces no such dilemma.
The position of the SMOB has become a Trojan horse to provide school staff with undue influence over public schools. Just as the public made clear that it is an intolerable conflict of interest for staff to serve on school boards, it should oppose Trojan horse SMOBs.
J.H. Snider, president of iSolon.org, often writes about democratic reform politics and policy.
Source: Snider, J.H., Student members of school boards present a dangerous conflict of interest, Capital, March 23, 2022.