One by one, the Prince George's County high school students stood up to deliver their oral reports on the fundamental question of whether a governing body has the right to tax the people it serves.
Binta Mamadou, a senior at Friendly High, held forth on "taxation without representation." Bernard Holloway, a sophomore at Eleanor Roosevelt High, made an impassioned plea for "the repeal of the 10 percent tax."
And Daniel Fuchs, a junior at Bowie High, drew applause when he argued, "This is not unlike a feudal lord demanding a bag of gold from peasant workers!"
It was a rousing performance by the students, made all the more impressive by the fact that this wasn't a classroom assignment but rather a civics lesson sprung to life.
About a dozen students attended the county's Board of Education meeting Thursday to protest a two-year-old board policy that gives principals control of 10 percent of all money raised by student organizations. The money must be deposited in a bank account controlled by their school's principal.
The policy was adopted, school board members say, so principals could share the money with other student clubs that have difficulty raising money--a more socialist arrangement than had existed when the largest student organizations easily outpaced smaller ones in fund-raising.
But at the meeting, students declared the system an outright dictatorship, one in which principals abused the arrangement by not spending the money solely on student needs but instead buying photocopiers or furniture for teachers' lounges.
"Principals are free to do whatever they want because there's no accounting where the money goes," said Oxon Hill High senior Mark Crusante, the student representative on the school board, who led the effort to overturn the policy.
"We had a doughnut sale, and we're outside in the middle of last December selling doughnuts and it's really cold," Mamadou said. "And we felt bad when we came back the next year and found that we had less money than we left with. It was like, 'What happened to the money?' "
Gerald Boarman, principal at Eleanor Roosevelt High, said the 10 percent fund from student fund-raisers is crucial to providing opportunities to all students. At Roosevelt, student clubs generally amass $120,000 to $160,000 a year. Boarman said he recently used some of the school's 10 percent share to pay tuition for a student to attend a summer program at a medical institute, which he otherwise would have been unable to afford.
"Some large clubs, like the band, raise a lot funds. Others are just as important but do not raise that kind of money," said Boarman, who was not at the board meeting. "It's the same process used in America with taxes. The 10 percent funds other programs. We take usually $30 or $90 from a club that in no way hurts them but allows us to benefit the whole."
Students argue that they already give to their schools. Some student groups hold teacher appreciation breakfasts, others fix up school property by planting flowers or painting murals, and others donate money to repair athletic fields, the students said. Money often is spent on club travel expenses, uniforms, supplies and outreach programs such as buying food for needy families.
"These groups pay for their needs, not their wants," said Donna McCorkle, a parent member of the Bowie High athletic boosters who was backing the students' effort to overturn the policy.
During a brief debate, some school board members said they support the policy conceptually because it should help ensure equity among student groups. But they conceded that the policy has not worked as conceived and said they believed principals have not always reported where they have spent the money or, in some cases, have taken more than 10 percent from the students.
Student board member Crusante politely objected to a proposed compromise from Superintendent Iris T. Metts, who suggested that the board delay the vote until she can study how principals are spending the money.
When the moment of truth came, it wasn't even close.
The nine-member board voted unanimously to rescind the policy, teaching the students a lesson they might never have gotten from textbooks.
"I learned that if you speak up, people listen," Fuchs said. "If you feel you're right, you should definitely say something."
School Won't Be Renovated
Despite pleas from county residents and some elected officials, the school board on Sept. 21 decided not to renovate a former school house on Ager Road in Hyattsville and reopen it as a 500-student elementary school.
Supporters of the proposal said the building, which was closed in the 1980s and now houses school improvement staff, could help relieve crowding in area schools.
But the board--after receiving a report from county officials that the site was too small for a modern elementary school and is partially located on a flood plain--said reopening the building as a school was unfeasible.
The board instead voted to mandate that a school must be built in west Hyattsville, possibly as early as 2003. There already are 13 other new schools in the school system's building plan for the next six years, but planners say the county could need an additional 13.
State Rewards 13 Schools
The state awarded 13 Prince George's elementary schools between $20,302 and $34,144 in cash for showing significant improvements in test scores and attendance rates. Twenty-one other county schools received certificates of recognition.
The schools that received money were: Berkshire, Carmody Hills, Columbia Park, Edgar Allan Poe, Fort Foote, Indian Queen, James McHenry, North Forestville, Oaklands, Patuxent, Samuel Chase, William Beanes and Yorktown.
Metts said she will award an additional $2,000 to each of the 21 schools that received certificates.