A proposal to allow the student member of the county school board to vote on some issues last week drew strong support from parents, teachers and elected officials during one of the largest public hearings in recent years.
"I think the basic idea is a good one; it seems to be working well in other counties, and it's time for us to try it here," Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Howard) told the board last Thursday.
The plan -- spearheaded by Jeff Lasser, a senior at Atholton High School who serves on the Howard County school board, and Josh Michael, a senior at Centennial High School and member of the Maryland State Board of Education -- would allow the student member to vote on key issues, such as school governing policies and curriculum changes. The student, however, would be excluded from personnel hearings and collective bargaining sessions and not allowed to vote on the budget or redistricting. Currently, the student member can only have his opinion recorded.
The change would take effect in December 2006 when the county's five-member board will be expanded to seven elected members.
The board is expected to decide Nov. 10 whether to recommend the change to Howard's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly, which must approve changes affecting local school boards.
Three of the 26 people testifying during last week's hearing opposed partial voting rights for students. Laura Waters, a former school board member, expressed concern that the student member is not elected and would not be accountable to the public. Colleen Morris and Ann DeLacey, the secretary and president, respectively, of the Howard County Education Association, also opposed the measure. DeLacey said the HCEA, which represents more than 4,000 teachers and other school employees, wants to explore other ways to involve the student member, including a new seating arrangement at board meetings and better ways to disseminate information to the student.
Natalie Woodson, a representative from the NAACP in Howard County, said the group had voted "overwhelmingly" to endorse the proposal and would "expect Howard County to be on the forefront of enfranchising students." Likewise, Mary Jane Barbato-Grauso, president of the Howard PTA Council, said the organization "with scant opposition" supports the plan.
According to board members, the most effective testimony came from parents and teachers.
"We must shatter the idea that students are better seen and not heard," Ambrose Lane Jr., a father of three students in Howard schools, told the board.
Caryn Lasser, the mother of student board member Jeff Lasser, asked the members: "Do you trust the student member to have a vote that counts?"
Board Chairman Courtney Watson this week recalled thinking to herself: "Yes, I do trust the students."
Watson said she is now more positive about the change. "I'm beginning to think there is some legitimacy to it being passed," she said.
During its next meeting, Watson said, the board will discuss when the student member could vote, how he would be selected, what access the student would have to non-public records and whether the student would be allowed to miss instruction time for board duties.
Student members on the state Board of Education as well as the school boards in Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties and Baltimore have partial voting rights. In Anne Arundel County, the student member has full voting rights.