Montgomery student wields power on school board

When the Montgomery County Board of Education chose its first new superintendent in a dozen years, a 16-year-old high school junior from Rockville was among the eight board members to raise a hand.

“I was humbled by the opportunity to cast a historic vote,” Alan Xie said. The opportunity to participate in the April 25 selection of Joshua P. Starr to replace the retiring Jerry D. Weast gave the student board member a great sense of responsibility and not a small sense of wonder.

“Before the vote, I told my dad, ‘I’m going to be hiring a guy who will make more than you do,’ ” he said. (Starr’s base salary will be $250,000 a year.)

Xie, who attends Richard Montgomery High School, is one of what experts say is a growing number of student school board members nationwide, reflecting a trend that started a generation ago to bring to the table perspectives of those most affected by budget cuts, growing class size or school leadership.

Students serve on local or state school boards in at least 25 states, according to a 2009 survey by the National School Boards Association. There is no precise national count of student board members. But only a small number are able to cast votes that are more than symbolic.

High school students have a seat on school boards in Fairfax and Loudoun counties, and on the D.C. State Board of Education, where they are invited to make comments but not given a vote in decisions. Maryland has one of the strongest traditions of student participation on school boards in the country, including several school systems that permit students an active role in policymaking and governing.

The student member on the Maryland State Board of Education, a Frederick County high school senior, can vote on most issues, including the budget. In Anne Arundel County, the student school board member can vote on everything — a power that county officials say is unique in the nation. In Montgomery, Xie can vote on school system policies and the board’s legislative platform as well as hiring decisions, but not on budget items, firings or boundary changes.

This year, the Montgomery school board unanimously endorsed a state bill that would expand the student member’s voting rights, which are codified in state law, to include everything but firing decisions. The bill did not make it out of a state Senate committee. Xie (pronounced SHAY) said the board is likely to try again next year.

Opponents of such voting rights argue that students, who often aren’t yet old enough to cast a vote for president, governor or county executive, lack the discipline or maturity to make official decisions. But the student board members in Montgomery have repeatedly impressed their colleagues.

“My experience has been many students take it more seriously than some of the adults and come better prepared,” said board member Patricia O’Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase) who has served with about 10 student members since 1998. “The hallmark of these kids is that they do their homework.”

The homework is extensive, including reading reams of budget documents and policy briefings that get delivered by courier once or twice a week to Xie’s house. And the schedule is stacked with board meetings, committee meetings, budget hearings and — this year — months of interviews and debriefings as the board searched for a new superintendent.

One recent Monday night, Xie joined his fellow board members at a regular meeting. Wearing a dark pinstripe suit and drinking a Coke, he listened to a lineup of parents who were protesting a proposal to build a school on a neighborhood park, and later delved into a lengthy discussion about potential budget cuts. On Tuesday that week, he met with the student government at Robert Frost Middle School. On Wednesday, he attended a book talk hosted by the Montgomery County Education Association. And on Thursday, he convened a meeting of his advisory council, including a chief of staff, events manager, lobbyist and communication liaison, to discuss plans for next school year.

Transportation and a heavy academic load are his biggest challenges. Xie’s parents, who work at the National Institutes of Health, have driven him to more than 100 board-related events this year in a Honda Odyssey. Meanwhile, his homework at the International Baccalaureate school was compounded by studying for 18— yes, 18 — Advanced Placement exams he took this year as an added challenge. “I know I’m an outlier,” he said. (The College Board, which oversees AP, confirms this. An infinitesimal percentage of students took 10 or more of the college-level tests in 2010.)

In his spring reelection campaign, Xie visited about 35 schools, giving speeches in middle school lunchrooms and shaking hands in high school hallways. While many districts have appointed school board representatives, Montgomery stages a direct election by all secondary students, using the county’s touch-screen voting machines — a civic engagement lesson on a grand scale.

Derek Peterson, a youth advocate who has trained student board members at National School Boards Association conferences, said such intensive campaigns yield sophisticated leaders who really know their school systems. “It’s not a popularity contest; these are political animals,” he said.

Xie won his reelection campaign with 72 percent of more than 64,000 votes cast. In his next term, he will advocate for “fiscally wise and environmentally friendly policies,” and he plans to meet with students at more schools and attend even more events.

He is also looking forward to working with the new superintendent, Starr, from Stamford, Conn., who begins in July.

“The new superintendent is part of the legacy that I will leave after I graduate,” he said.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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