In Arundel Boardroom, Student Has True Clout

Board member Tricia Johnson, left, greeting parents with Pallas Snider, said it would be
Board member Tricia Johnson, left, greeting parents with Pallas Snider, said it would be "pretty simple" to vote against money for later school start times. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Sitting on the dais of the Anne Arundel school board in her vaguely Gothic attire, Turkish evil eye earrings and beaded choker, Pallas Snider looks like some sort of Ivy League mystic.

But at the moment, she just may be the most influential person on the county's Board of Education.

Between French horn lessons and theater rehearsals, this 18-year-old senior from Severna Park High School is subtly shaping the public school bureaucracy that pays her teachers and prints her report cards. She will play a central role this month in deciding high school starting times, possibly the single most volatile issue that will come before the group in the early months of 2006.

"I'm not quite sure how to say it -- sometimes you forget that they're a student," said Tricia Johnson, one of seven adults on the school board.

Anne Arundel is the only county in the nation, education officials say, with a school board that extends full voting rights to a student. When relations deteriorated between the Anne Arundel board and then-Superintendent Eric J. Smith in a series of bitter, closed-door meetings last summer, Snider was there. Her support for the former superintendent and his projects has placed her on the short end of a five-to-three split on the school board, a stance that has not won her much good will from the five-person majority.

"She came into class the other day," recalled Anya Lamb, a friend and classmate at Severna Park High. "We were reading 'Hamlet' in English, and she was like, 'Wow, I just lived Hamlet.' "

Snider has cast the fifth and decisive vote more than once on the eight-member panel. In the fall, she single-handedly wrote a policy revision that would eliminate the valedictorian and salutatorian titles at graduation, replacing them with a broader cum laude designation. The document, written on her home computer one night in lieu of calculus homework, is being recast into more formal language by school-system administrators.

Snider first aspired to the school board at age 4, when she went door-to-door with her father as he campaigned for a seat on the school board in Burlington, Vt.

"I was his little prop to stand out on the street to wave and carry the signs," she recalled. Jim Snider served on the board there for three years. He won nomination to a seat on the Anne Arundel school board in 2002 by a convention of civic leaders, but then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) awarded the seat to someone else.

Snider's mother also has had an active role in school affairs, chairing a parent group that successfully challenged the school system's decision to cut back electives in the sixth grade in 2001.

But since Pallas Snider won nomination to the Anne Arundel school board last summer, her parents say they have resisted the temptation to lobby her in private, and their public appearances at school board sessions have been fewer.

This month finds Snider at the center of another looming boardroom drama. She hopes to convince her colleagues that the school system should spend $4 million to open its 12 high schools almost an hour later, at 8 o'clock.

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