The hour was late and the meeting room was cold. The Montgomery County Board of Education was proceeding with budget business as quickly as possible.
Jonathan Paul, the student member of the board, raised his hand. Several of the adult members pretended not to notice. One grimaced. Finally, school board president Daryl Shaw recognized him. "Yes, Jonathan?"
Paul, a 17-year-old senior at Churchill High School, told his fellow board members why he felt the number of classroom periods in county high schools should not be dropped from seven to six, a cost-saving measure under consideration.
The board voted, with no discussion on Paul's comments, to delete the seventh period. That is not unusual, Paul said, adding that adult board members rarely discuss his comments: "To them, I'm just background noise."
Kenneth Muir, director of information for the schools, chuckled.
"Several board members would prefer the student member to be seen and not heard," he said.
Some board members realize there is a problem.
"It's a great resource we're wasting," said member Blair Ewing. "The student is someone we should turn to and say, 'What's your view? Have you consulted with other students?' We don't do that."
Carol Wallace is among the board's conservative majority, which opposes the student board seat. She said she feels that "children are still children. tWe are the adults. We set the rules."
Paul, elected to his seat by county students last spring, is the second youth to serve in the Montgomery board's nonvoting sutdent seat, created by the Maryland lesislatrue in 1977. Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties and Baltimore City also have student members on their school boards. c
Primarily at the request of Montgomery students, legislators created the student seat with a one-year term. The intent, board members recall, was to give students a voice in drafting policies and programs that affect them. The student member could also inform board members on how measures they adopted actually worked, or did not work, for students.
Last year, a bill was introduced in the General Assembly to abolish the student seat, and another bll proposed to give the student member a vote. Neither passed. The sutdent seat remains on the board, without a vote.
And, according to Paul and other observers, without any respect.
"When board members talk to each other during a meeting, that's okay. But if I talk, it's the student making noise," Paul said.
Board member Marian Greenblatt, who lobbied unsuccessfully last year to have the student seat eliminated, tried this year, also without success, to have the sutdent member barred from closed board meetings at which sensitive matters are often discussed.
Greenblatt and other board members are angry that the student takes business trips with the board. Paul visited the school districts of two candidates during the recent search for a new superintendent, and plans to attent a San Francisco education convention with the board this spring. "This is at the taxpayers' expense. He (Paul) doesn't vote. He only serves one year. Why should he go?" said Greenblatt.
Paul, who meets frequently with student groups around the county, claims students have a great stake in decisions about their education, including matters concerning teachers and staff members. Paul said he extensively interviewed students in the school districts of candidates for the Montgomery superintendent's job about each candidate's performance. He says he feels his presence is worthwhile.
Board member Elizabeth Spencer, who is the sole board member supporting a vote for the sutdent, agreed, saying, "As a student, he has access to information about the school system we as adults couldn't possibly have."
Greenblatt said she would not again seek to eliminate the student seat, but felt the student's privileges as board member should be curtailed.
"There has to be some limits, some controls," she said.
Board members from other areas with student seats say the student member fares better on their boards.
"It's great," said Prince George's school board member A. James Golato.
"We respect him and his views are sought after," Golato said of student board member Sidney Moore. "He introduces resolutions on substantive matters, like grading and curriculum, and most of them are adopted."
As in Montgomery County, the Prince George's student board member does not vote. A bill was introduced in the General Assembly this spring that would have given the Prince George's student member the right to vote on matters concerning cirriculum and student activities. It was passed by the county delegation but died in a Senate committee at the end of the session.
In Anne Arundel County, the student board member has had a vote for four years.
"It works very well," said Jean Hebert, an administrative aide to the Anne Arundel school board. "Our student is treated like an equal. Without a vote the other members could ignore him."
Paul feels this is his problem.
"I have a lot of trouble making people listen to me. If they want to ignore me, they can because I don't have a vote," he said.
One board member, who asked not to be named, said he felt Paul's lack of recognition on the board was due in part to his quiet nature. Last year's student member, David Naimon, was more aggressive and better able to air his views, the board member said.
Naimon, reached at Princeton where he is a freshman majoring in political science, recalled his days on the board.
"They sometimes ignored me when my hand was raised," he said. "There is a perception that the student is unimportant. To some degree, some board members are not respectful to someone who is a young person."
But conservative board member Joseph Barse said, "Originally I was not in favor of having a student on the board, but now I have come to believe it is quite useful. Both Mr. Naimon and Mr. Paul have profided useful youthful viewpoints."
Barse admitted the student member is sometimes regarded with impatience by the adults on the board. "But to be fair, the adult members display impatience towards each other as well," said Barse. "Sometimes we welcome the student' contribution and sometimes we get irritated with him. But we get irritated with each other, too."