For almost two years I reported on the Prince George's Country Board of Education and its meetings. Every other week nine adults get together and make those major and minor decisions that can make or break the school lives of thousands of children. Will ther be Coca-Cola machines in the schools? If a student is caught smoking pot the first time will he be thrown out of school forever?
The site for these meetings is an auditoriumsized hall in Upper Marlboro; overheated and stuffy in the winter, hot and sticky in the summer. There are rows and rows of clanky folding chairs for the "public," chairs that face the closed circle of officials in the front.
The press is lucky. We are given a long table to the right side where we can watch both audience and officials and fee free to rush up and question anyone. In fact, officials often seek us out to explain the intracicies of the debate and press their views.
Not so for the audience. If the citizen citizens - not the professional citizens who attend all meetings - accidentally figure out the agenda and find their way to Marlboro, they must sit through hours of debate they don't understand, break for dinner and come back for their hour.
If they can find it, they sign up on the speaker's sheet. On that list, an average of - say five out of 100 speakers - are students; the only people who must live, truly, under the rules beign passed by the school board. The teachers have a union with more political clout than most of the board members. Not the students. They had no voice.
Board members would say that the country's junior high schools were "jungles" and there were no junior high students there to say otherwise. Tutorial programs for children with reading problems were outlawed because members feared that the NAACP had ulterior motives for the program. But there were no students there with reading problems to say otherwise.
Now all this might change. Both the Prince George's and Montgomery County delegations here in Annapolis have bills before the General Assembly to add non-voting students members to the boards of education in the two counties. Students to disped myths, to alert their own when something of great merit comes up, to propose, to work with board members and get answers from the staff and superintendent when something fishy is going on.
"It's almost like motherhood for me . . . it's so obviously needed I haven't ever sat down and thought why," said Del. Craig S. Knoll, a Democratic representative from Prince George's and head of the subcommittee that considered the legislation.
There appeard to be no real controversy about the idea in either the Prince George's or Montgomery County delegations - only the weight of tradition that is often hard to throw off. Last year the Prince George's County bill to add a student member passed the House but failed in the Senate. This year Del. Knoll has vowed to nurse it through both chambers until it becomes law.
Lobbying, three years of lobbying by students in both counties, is the reason for this success.
Last week, when Montgomery County's Senate delegation approved a non-voting student member for the board, the student lobbists went wild. They tore through the press room in Annapolis declaring VICTORY and passed out a stack of propaganda as impressive as any peddled by the League of Women Voters.
"To quote one sentence of a letter of endorsement . . . Paul S. Sakamoto, a school superintendent in California, said: "Students (meaning student board members) have assisted in enlightening board members so they may be in a better position to make a decision . . .", read one paragraph of the stuff that makes for stiff reading but impresses politicians.
As Del. Charles Docter of Montgomery County said: "The first year they didn't know what they were doing. But it didn't take long for them to figure it out - the legislative process, I mean."
The only controversy at any of the hearings was how much to pay the new member. (The cost is called "fiscal note" here and after every [WORD ILLEGIBLE] idea someone asks: "What's the fiscal note that?")
After debates by both delegations it decided that the student would received money like the other board member [TEXT ILLEGIBLE]