Voters in Anne Arundel and Howard counties head to the polls on May 14 to narrow the field of candidates for their respective school boards, but a pair of board races will be decided in the coming weeks: those for student school board members in both counties.

In Anne Arundel, students from grades six through 12 will cast their votes on Thursday, April 18, from among three candidates. After Anne Arundel students select a finalist, the winner is appointed by the governor, according to a school system news release.

In Howard County, students in grades six to 11 will choose from among two candidates on May 1.

The student member serves a one-year term, with scholarships of $8,000 and $5,000 for the Anne Arundel and Howard members, respectively.

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The Student Member of the Board (SMOB) for Anne Arundel County is the only one in the nation who has full voting rights on a local school board. In Howard County, the student member can vote on all issues facing the school board except decisions pertaining to personnel, the school budget or restricted matters.

In recent years, the role of the student member has faced legal scrutiny in Howard County. In February, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit dismissed a case in which some Howard County parents claimed the process of selecting the student member violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause. They also argued that it violated the constitutional guarantee of free exercise of religion because it shut out students who, for religious reasons, choose to attend non-public schools.

In 2020, two other parents questioned the voting role of Howard’s student school board member. They sued the school board after the student member voted against reopening schools in late 2020, leaving the board deadlocked at 4-4. The parents lost the suit.

Ahead of the coming elections, finalists were chosen by a committee of their peers.

In Anne Arundel, student candidates sat for interviews with the Chesapeake Regional Association of Student Councils (CRASC) and teachers, with three finalists announced in early March: Divine Kainessie, Hafsa Hamdaoui and Miguel Castañeda.

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The two Howard County finalists, Antonio Clay-Hardy and James Obasiolu, were selected by their peers at the Howard County Association of Student Councils (HCASC) Convention last month. More than 130 student delegates selected the two finalists from among 11 student candidates. HCASC will also host the general election.

“The SMOB election process aims to empower students to learn and put into practice the habits of mind it takes to serve as engaged and informed citizens,” Howard County schools officials wrote in a new release.

Here’s a look at the finalists:

Anne Arundel County

Divine Kainessie - Glen Burnie High School

Divine Kainessie, 17, of Glen Burnie High School. (Courtesy photo)

Kainessie decided that instead of complaining about what could be different, she wanted to work for change.

“I’ve always been upstanding and taking charge” and looking at problems and how to solve them, the 17-year-old said. “Because I believe complaining does nothing, but action does something.”

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The student representative for the Student Equity Advisory team wants to change how the board communicates with students and potentially develop an app for communication.

“I want to innovate and change the way, how we connect. I want more direct access and I want them to personally talk to the board or talk to me,” Kainessie said.

Kainessie also is active in the National Art Society, placed bronze in the state for community outreach with SkillsUSA, and is a member of the school’s swim team.

During Kainessie’s time at different elementary and middle schools, she noticed that equity imbalances really affect education.

“I want to make policies, not just agree or disagree, to make school more equitable between our high- and low-income schools,” Kainessie said.

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Kainessie’s goal is to do everything in her power to get the students what they need.

“If I’m representing them, I’m representing myself. So, I’m taking care of that like I would take care of myself. I think that firsthand experience really puts everything into perspective.”

Hafsa Hamdaoui - Crofton High School

Hafsa Hamdaoui, 17, attends Crofton High School. (Courtesy photo)

Hamdaoui, 17, decided to run because she had many concerns, from dirty bathrooms to systemic issues like a lack of equity throughout the district.

“There was a general sense of discontent amongst myself and my peers. I felt as though our voices weren’t really necessarily being heard at the board and high levels of ACCPS,” Hamdaoui said.

She said her experience on the Maryland Education Coalition and Advisory Council gave her the skills necessary to advocate for causes.

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“I’ve been to the Maryland General Assembly. I’ve spoken to state senators [and] representatives and advocated for bills that affect students in Maryland.”

Hamdaoui is also the founder and team captain of a mock trial team and vice president of the Model United Nations.

She believes her experience in different schools, including public and private, give her a unique perspective for the role.

“I want to uplift AACPS and students,” she said.

Miguel Castañeda - Severna Park High School

Miguel Castañeda, 17, attends Severna Park High School. (Courtesy photo)

Castañeda said he has always been passionate about advocacy and has been involved in student government for six years.

“Potentially serving as my county’s student member of the board is the best way to enact real change in my community that I could have only dreamed of doing a few years ago,” Castañeda said.

Both of Castañeda’s parents are Puerto Rican and he’s proud of his heritage.

“There are very few Latinos and even fewer Puerto Ricans who attend Severna Park High, so to be able to represent not only my school but also my ethnicity during this election has been a dream come true for me,” he said.

He is the vice president of his class and holds a leadership role with CRASC.

Castañeda, 17, believes his experience working with a diverse range of people, including those he has disagreed with, is one of his greatest strengths.

“I believe that anyone in an elected office needs to be able to collaborate and communicate with a large and diverse community of leaders and advocates to be able to enact change,” he said.

Castañeda’s first action would be to expand the SMOB Advisory Council, he said.

“The council is a body that helps the current student member of the board with policy and testimony, and while I applaud everything they’ve been able to accomplish this year, I think the board is far too small to be able to accurately represent our county,” Castañeda said. “By expanding the council to include marginalized and underrepresented communities, I think that I would be able to more accurately represent the opinions and values of our students.”

Howard County

Antonio Clay-Hardy, Wilde Lake High School

Antonio Clay-Hardy, a junior at Wilde Lake High School in Howard County. (Courtesy photo from Antonio Clay-Hardy)

Antonio Clay-Hardy, 17, wants to be part of change in his final year of high school.

“Students need to be conscious of the [school] board’s decisions and have an active voice in the decisions made on our behalf,” Clay-Hardy said. “I want to be an active part of that change.”

Clay-Hardy would also like to see the student member become more involved in schools. Once students are elected to the school board, few come back to schools or consistently get feedback from students to ensure their decisions align with what students want.

“I want to make sure student voice is being consistently heard throughout the year,” Clay-Hardy said.

At Wilde Lake High, Clay-Hardy is a varsity athlete on the school’s baseball and golf teams, a class council community liaison and the 2025 class representative to his school’s Student Government Association.

He is also a member of Wilde Lake’s mock trial team, winning the top attorney award this year. Clay-Hardy also is on speech and debate team.

Outside of school, Clay-Hardy is a chaplain with the Jack and Jill of America Inc. He also serves as a youth pastor at Life Change AME Church in Columbia and assists with Columbia Community Care by delivering groceries to residents’ homes.

Clay-Hardy’s campaign is focused on student well-being and safety, supporting student achievement and improving communication.

He favors less emphasis on in-school testing, especially midterms and finals, and focusing more time on educational content, as well as reviewing and revitalizing standards for free Advanced Placement testing and visiting as many schools as possible.

James Obasiolu, Atholton High School

James Obasiolu, a junior at Atholton High School in Howard County/ (Courtesy photo from James Obasiolu)

The first time James Obasiolu felt he had a voice as a student was in the eighth grade. At the time, the current student school board member had voted to keep classes virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That’s when I learned what the SMOB was,” said Obasiolu, now 17. “That we students have a voice, we have a say.”

“I have really been inspired to follow in this legacy, in student advocacy,” Obasiolu said. “The reason why I’m running for SMOB is I want to be a voice for the voiceless, I want to continue that long legacy of fighting for change.”

At Atholton High, Obasiolu is an executive officer in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) program and in the school’s SGA, where Obasiolu is the Atholton representative to the Board of Education.

Obasiolu is also first vice president of the Howard County Association of Student Councils and is the student member on the county government’s Environmental Sustainability Board. He has also competed in speech competitions and been selected as a keynote speaker multiple times.

Passionate about music, Obasiolu plays the cello and is a member of the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra and Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra, NYO2. An Eagle Scout, Obasiolu is “one of 580 Boy Scouts in its entire history to earn every single merit badge.”

Obasiolu’s campaign tenets include school climate and atmosphere; student safety and mental wellness; better communication and involving more students.

He said he wants to focus on student achievement gaps. If elected, Obasiolu would advocate for liaisons in all middle and high schools to assist Hispanic and Latino students with those achievement gaps.

“We should be making sure these students can meet the same achievements and objectives that every other student does and they have the resources to do so,” Obasiolu said.

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