A ruling by Maryland’s highest court this week is likely to spur student school board members to seek equal authority with their board peers — and full voting rights.
The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that having a student member on the Howard County school board does not “run afoul of the Maryland constitution.” Two parents had challenged the authority of a student member who cast a pivotal vote against opening schools during the pandemic.
Maryland’s student school board members have become increasingly vocal about the limits on their voting authority, lobbying for more voting rights. Anne Arundel County’s school board is the only one in the state that gives its student member the power to vote on any issue. Some student members are prohibited from voting on personnel issues and the operating and capital budgets. The student on the state board cannot vote on personnel matters and appeals.
Just last spring, a bill to expand the Baltimore County student member’s voting powers was passed by both chambers of the General Assembly, but it was vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan. The Republican governor wrote in a May 27 letter that it was “premature” to expand the authority of student board members while the question of their constitutionality was before the state’s highest court.
With a decision made, Roah Hassan, the student member on Baltimore County’s school board, said she one-thousand percent “supports trying to pass voting rights legislation again.” She hopes the ruling in the case can lead to more voting rights for student members around Maryland.
“I always argue that students know more than any other adult member at the table,” Hassan said.
Del. Eric Ebersole, a Democrat representing portions of Baltimore and Howard counties, said he would be interested in re-introducing the bill. “There is no reason not to pursue this again,” he said, adding that he believes the court ruling will encourage students to become more active in expanding voting rights.
While some legislators question whether students have enough maturity to understand issues, including budgets that can be more than $1 billion, Ebersole said most students are as prepared as the adults. “I think students who pursue positions and who get elected are highly interested in the subject. They are very serious about it. My observation is that student members sometimes work harder to master the issues …I think they are highly qualified.”
In Baltimore County, student members cannot vote on budget or personnel items. But it’s still more power than students have in other counties. In Carroll County, for instance, the student’s vote is noted but not officially counted. Hassan said those students should be part of the process rather than just sitting at meetings and listening.
Hassan said student members should still have a say on everything, like where the money should go.
“I think it’s important to realize there’s absolutely no requirement for a background in budgetary matters,” she said. “A lot of these board members know very little about their budget.”
She said the main argument that adults have made is that student members hardly deal with their own finances. That may be true, Hassan said, but it’s not a reason to exclude student members altogether. She said she does her research ahead of budget discussions to make sure she knows what’s happening before the vote.
“Voting on policy without being able to vote on the budget is sometimes like not being able to vote at all,” said Ebersole.
But Kimberly Ford, one of the two Howard County parents who brought the suit, argues that a 16- or 17- year-old elected by students ages 11 to 17 should not be permitted to cast binding votes on the board.
Ford and Traci Spiegel, the other parent who challenged the authority of student board members, said in a statement that the board had “engaged in a gross overreaction to the pandemic that caused irreparable harm to 58,000 students. The power given to a SMOB (Student Member of the Board of Education) on an issue this monumental is disgraceful and the adults in the room putting SMOBs in this position should be ashamed of themselves.”
“As a parent, it is frightening to think what our State legislature could do to dilute the voice of local parents in their children’s education,” Ford said.
Maja Durkovic, president of Maryland Association of Student Councils, said it was “important to stress that SMOBs get the same training as every other board member.”
The rising senior said the court’s decision was a “beautiful conclusion” to a long effort by students to have more of a voice.
“It’s really just another call for students to just keep fighting,” she said.
Durkovic said that since the students are the largest stakeholders in an education system, it’s important to have them represented on school boards. And students appreciate it.
“It’s kind of like when women weren’t allowed to be in office,” she said, adding that it was assumed men would have their best interest. “That’s clearly not true.”
Joseph Mead, who represented the Howard County school board and is senior counsel for the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said the high court’s ruling is narrow, in that it is only applicable to Howard County. However, he said it will be seen as helping the cause of student voting rights.
“I think this is a win for students in all of the districts,” he said “It doesn’t require that they have a voice. It just says the General Assembly has the latitude to involve them in the process.”