Howard County school board meetings are not typically a popular after-school hangout. But as board members plowed through the agenda -- discussing a potential land swap with the Department of Recreation and Parks, considering methods to improve middle school math -- students trickled into the back of the room.
By the time a report on the county's strategy for improving academic standards in compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act was approved, the room was packed.
Jeff Lasser, a senior at Atholton High School and the student member of the Howard County Board of Education, stepped to the podium. Josh Michael, a senior at Centennial High School and the student member of the Maryland State Board of Education, joined him from the audience. "Today we are here to present a proposal for partial voting rights for future student members of the board," Lasser began.
The students in the room perked up as Lasser asked those supporting the proposal to rise.
With a quiet rustle, roughly 100 students and most of the three dozen adults in the room stood up.
Lasser and Michael paused, allowing the moment of solidarity to sink in.
Lasser's proposal would allow the student member of the county school board to vote on key issues such as school governing policies and curriculum. The student member, however, would be excluded from negative personnel hearings and collective bargaining sessions and not allowed to vote on the budget or redistricting. The change would take effect in December 2006, when the five-member board will be expanded to seven elected members.
Currently, the student member has the right to state an opinion about matters before the board but cannot vote.
"The precedent has been set," Michael said, noting that partial voting rights have been granted to the student members of the Maryland State Board of Education and the school boards of Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City. In Anne Arundel County, the student member of the school board has full voting rights.
The Howard school board has had a student member since 1988. Lasser is one of three students who sought the seat in the spring.
"We feel Jeff's position [on the board] right now is pretty good," Michael concluded, "We'd like to make it great."
The students in the room erupted in applause. The board members seemed impressed with the presentation but expressed reservations.
"You guys did a really good job. We have staff members come up here every day and give presentations, and you did a terrific job, comparatively speaking," said Courtney Watson, school board chairman.
"What I'm struggling with is the accountability to the voters of Howard County, the taxpayers of Howard County," Watson said.
Patricia S. Gordon, vice chairman of the board, expressed concern that student members would not necessarily be accountable to any electorate. Gordon recalled a rigorous election process last year in which a field of 18 candidates was whittled down for two seats on the board.
Board member Joshua M. Kaufman said that in meetings with other school board members throughout Maryland, he has never heard a negative opinion on student voting. "I thought that was remarkable because I've had some hesitation about it."
The board discussed the possibility of allowing voters to select the student member during a countywide election. It also discussed allowing voters decide in a referendum whether to give the student member voting rights.
The members agreed to hold a public hearing at their Oct. 27 evening meeting.
If the board backs the proposal, it would ask the county's legislative delegation to introduce a bill during the next General Assembly session, which convenes in January. All changes in the makeup of local school boards must be approved by the legislature.
"We know how the students feel about this, and we want them, of course, to tell us how they feel," Watson said. "But we are really looking for the voters of Howard County to tell us how they feel."