In Anne Arundel County, the student member of the Board of Education has the same voting rights as the adult members. For a school system with more than a $1.1 billion operating budget, 10,000 employees and 80,000 students, that’s substantial power.
As of July 1, Anne Arundel’s school board is likely to be divided equally among its adult members by party identification. By then, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) will have appointed four of its eight adult members.
The result is that the next student member of the board will potentially be the board’s swing vote. That is, the student member could be not only one of nine votes, but the decisive vote, just as Anthony Anthony Kennedy often is on the nine-member Supreme Court.
The election of the student member of the board takes place in three stages. First, a panel secretly interviews the candidates and nominates three for a vote by the student council. Second, council members nominate one nominee among the three nominees. Third, the governor, who has never rejected the council’s nominee, appoints the nominee.
The first stage is where school staff can corrupt the process by exercising undue influence. The press has never subjected this stage to scrutiny.
The panel’s configuration is easily subject to staff manipulation. This year it was composed of five members: a superintendent appointee, the student member of the board, the student council president, a student nominated by the superintendent’s appointee and approved by the student council and a representative from one of the two largest school employee unions. The union member can watch and comment on the panel’s secret interviews but lacks a binding vote. Although not part of the written rules, a staff insider, such as an assistant superintendent, may monitor the process to ensure it meets the superintendent’s high standards (the student member of the board has been the superintendent’s most reliable school board vote).
Unlike a similar panel that interviews and nominates adult school board members, the student panel is not subject to Maryland’s Open Meetings Act or other right-to-know laws and chooses to do its interviewing and voting in secret. Even the names of the panel’s members aren’t publicly disclosed. The panel argues that its proceedings must be kept secret to protect minors. All that it publicly reports are the names of the three students nominated to the second stage.
Staff, assured that the system provides no rational incentive for student whistleblowing, can discreetly exercise control over the nominations. Students aspiring to win leadership positions are expected to kowtow to staff. For example, if staff sense a potential troublemaker, they can use their inside information on student member of the board applicants to recruit additional applicants more to their liking.
The nominating panel’s student members are often dependent on staff members. Not only do they win their leadership position through a process heavily controlled by school staff, but also, after they secure a panel position, staff continue to have substantial leverage over them.
Unlike the public, powerful staff will know how the student panelists voted, and they can use that information to grant or withdraw valuable favors, including scholarships, recommendations and invitations to high prestige events — none of which the process treats as ethical conflicts of interest.
Whether staff do or don’t exercise such power is immaterial; what is material is that students perceive they can.
Based on discussions with Anne Arundel School Board, County Council and Maryland General Assembly members, I believe the most realistic way to address this problem is for the governor not to appoint the chosen student member of the board until the Maryland General Assembly fixes the systemic corruption in the existing system. The assembly created the student member of the board position and will not fix it, given the school staff’s strong support for the current system, unless the governor forces its hand.
In making his decision, the governor should also consider that the election rules the student council used this year to nominate a student member of the board violated its own published constitution, which mandated an interview panel only consisting of the student council president, student member of the board and superintendent’s appointee.
If the position of student member of the board is insignificant, then it’s not worth fixing. But the recent highly publicized Maryland General Assembly debate over election rules for Anne Arundel’s adult school board members demonstrates that the school board serves a vital democratic function. If so, the debate should include the election rules for student member of the board — the school board’s swing vote.
J.H. Snider, president of iSolon.org, regularly writes about issues of democratic reform.