Laura Piper was elected student representative to the Fairfax County School Board last Thursday, barely edging out her opponent in an all-day convention of delegates from the county's 23 high schools.
"It was absolutely the toughest competition ever," said Piper, who will be a senior at Robinson Secondary School in September. "I still don't believe it."
After spending six hours giving speeches, answering dozens of questions on issues affecting Fairfax County's 127,000 students and sitting through a painfully close final vote tally, Piper said she was "shocked" and "stunned" at winning the prestigious post.
Piper, 17, narrowly defeated Andrew Burchfield in the gathering at Fairfax High School, where 16 candidates aggressively campaigned to win the votes of 94 delegates, all members of the Student Advisory Council, a 110-member group that represents the county's students.
The student convention, held from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. in the high school's auditorium, had all the action of a political convention, with delegates, candidates, lobbyists, endless rounds of speeches, caucuses, more speeches and a nail-biting final vote that saw Piper squeeze by Burchfield, 34 to 33.
Piper, who assumes the post July 1, will replace current student representative Kim Willoughby, who is graduating from Langley High School next month.
Piper will receive $35 for each School Board meeting she attends, plus auto expenses. She said she probably will quit her job at a local hardware store and drop most extracurricular school activities in order to spend more time working on School Board-related issues.
"The first thing I want to do is make the Student Advisory Council more well-known and to make the board representative more well-known," Piper said. "I don't think [students] really understand how they can use the School Board and the representative. I want to make good use of school announcements, newspapers, Parent-Teacher Association meetings and maybe start a Student Advisory Council newsletter . . . . I need to reach more people."
Piper said she would also like the Student Advisory Council to consider supporting a move to reinstate the student representative's voting rights on the School Board. In 1976, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, which created the student board seat, abolished the position's voting privileges because of alleged illegalities by previous student representatives, said county officials.
Board Chairman John F. Herrity, who said he voted against establishing the student post on the School Board in 1972, said he does not support a move to reinstate the student voting privilege.
"I think it's a good idea for them to have input as nonvoting members, but their vote has to do with allocation of money in the school system and, since they don't pay taxes, they shouldn't vote on things that have to do with money," Herrity said in a telephone interview.
Classroom stress and student suicide are two other issues the School Board and the Student Advisory Council need to scrutinize, Piper said. School officials said there have been four student suicides in Fairfax County during the current academic year.
"We need to make school counselors and [student support] organizations more known to students that are having trouble," Piper said. "Also, there's a lot of pressure on students in Fairfax County . . . . The academics in school is quite heavy and students are worried about getting into colleges, performing well and making their parents happy."
School Board Chairman Mary E. Collier agreed student stress and suicide were major issues facing the board and community. She said she would welcome any new ideas on how to help such depressed or troubled young people.
"I'd love to hear how [the Student Advisory Council] suggest we help," Collier said. "Fairfax County has very sophisticated kids . . . and that's one of the reasons they're feeling stress."
Piper said her life will change drastically when she assumes her role as student representative on the board. She said she now plans to spend evenings and weekends reading about county school business, writing newsletters and attending county-sponsored dinners and ceremonies -- not to mention her daily homework assignments. "I may have to drop off the track team," she said.
Piper moved to Fairfax County in 1983 from San Antonio. She said she would like to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., after graduating next year.