Prince George’s considers limiting student board member’s role

The Prince George’s County Board of Education is considering a policy that would allow its student member to be barred from executive sessions, stirring debate about the motivation for making such a move in an election year.

The board, which oversees Maryland’s second-largest school system, consists of nine members whom county voters elect from districts and one high school student chosen annually by student government representatives.

Board members who support the policy shift argue that a high school student should not be privy to certain information from the closed-door meetings. Opponents question whether the board has legal authority to exclude the student.

The issue is politically sensitive. Faith Jackson, the incumbent student member, will be succeeded in August by Shabnam Ahmed. A junior at Bowie High School, Ahmed is the sister of Raaheela Ahmed, a college student, who is challenging the board’s chairman, Verjeana Jacobs (District 5), in the fall election.

The power of the board’s student member is already somewhat limited. Jackson can vote on such matters as the board’s policies, leadership and agenda. But the student has no vote on the budget, personnel matters, or collective bargaining, or on closing a school or setting its boundaries.

The board discussed the proposed policy shift on June 4 in a committee meeting. It is unclear when the board will take a final vote.

“They advocate student success, but they are restricting the voice of the 123,000 students that make up the school system,” Shabnam Ahmed said. “I’m a little concerned about that.”

Board member Edward Burroughs (District 8), who was a student member from 2008 to 2010, said the board has tried for years to limit the power of student members. In the latest case, Burroughs contended, the board is “choosing to play petty politics with policy.” Because of Shabnam Ahmed’s family tie to a board candidate, Burroughs said, “the timing is suspicious.”

Jacobs said allegations of political motivations are “ridiculous.” The board decided to review the policy because of the pending turnover of the student member, Jacobs said.

“The reality is, this has always been an issue in terms of what [the student member’s] role and authority is,” Jacobs said.

Other board members agreed.

“My purpose in bringing this up had nothing to do with politics,” said member Carolyn M. Boston (District 6).

Abbey G. Hairston, an attorney for the board, said the board needs to update the policy because it is out of sync with state law. Hairston told the board that the law “clearly requires” a board vote for a student member to attend an executive session.

Under the proposed shift, Hairston said, the board would take such votes.

Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said in an email that state law says a “student member must be invited by a majority vote of the local board members to attend [an] executive session relating to special education placement appeal hearings, collective bargaining, and personnel suspension and dismissal hearings.”

Sandra Benson Brantley, an assistant state attorney general, recently wrote to a state senator that the wording of the statute “indicates a legislative intent” for student members to be free to attend all executive sessions on topics other than those with the specific limitations.

If the board approves the new policy, the student member also would be unable to attend committee meetings on issues for which the student has no vote. Currently, the student member may attend such meetings and executive sessions. The new policy also would bar the student member from voting on student disciplinary matters.

Most local school boards have student members. The Fairfax County board has a high school student representative, but he does not attend executive sessions. The student on the Anne Arundel County board has full voting rights and attends executive sessions. The student on the Montgomery County board also attends executive sessions and casts a vote on the hiring of the superintendent.

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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