Twice a month, 17-year-old Josie Shaffer, the student member of the board of education of Baltimore County, takes a seat next to people more than twice her age to deliver a five-minute-long report on issues ranging from grading to transportation.
“Sometimes it’s a little weird to be sitting with adults when you’re still a teenager,” said Shaffer, a senior at Pikesville High School whose yearlong tenure ends on June 30.
As the student member of the board, Shaffer has the power to vote yea or nay on all critical issues before the board with the exception of budgets, zoning, redistricting and personnel/hiring issues.
“I’m the most informed student in the county—it’s crazy,” said Shaffer, who was elected to the post by a jury of her peers and went through a rigorous process that involved writing essays, delivering speeches and answering interview questions.
“I want to give back to Baltimore County’s 113,000 students,” Shaffer said. “I want to empower students with the right support so students can succeed.”
To accomplish that, Shaffer has embarked on a listening tour of elementary, middle and high schools throughout the county. So far, her whistle-stop campaign has included Arbutus Elementary, Ridgely Middle, and Dulaney High School.
During her school tours, Shaffer makes sure to meet not only with students and representatives from student government, but also with teachers, principals, and school administrators.
“I ask them [students] what they like and don’t like about classes,” Shaffer said. “I also sit in on curriculum committee meetings.
“What might be in the best interest for Pikesville isn’t the same for Perry Hall,” said Shaffer, who has to juggle her own school schedule around visits to other schools.
“It’s hard to get out to schools because I’m also in school,” she said. “And sometimes my mom has to use the car. Plus, Baltimore County is huge. It’s the 25th-largest school district in the country. Some counties only have two high schools.”
Shaffer makes extra effort to hear students out, especially those whose opinions differ from her own. “You don’t always want to hear the same opinions,” Shaffer said. “I want to meet with art clubs, school business clubs and students who aren’t in clubs. Students can email me. I also have a Twitter and Instagram account.”
Shaffer doesn’t mind delving into the minutia of educational policy, as long as it’s in the best interest of her fellow students.
“Josie has an incredible amount of interest in policy and politics,” said state Del. Shelley Hettleman, a Democrat who represents District 11.
Shaffer served as an intern in Hettleman’s office during the 2017 legislative session in Annapolis, where she got a close-up taste of politics at the state level.
“When Josie told me she was running for the school board, I knew it would be a natural fit,” Hettleman said. “She takes issues seriously. These are heavy-duty decisions that the school board makes.”
Among the issues Shaffer has tackled is the revised grading policy that went into effect at the beginning of the 2016 school year. The policy initially said that homework and behavior in class would no longer count toward students’ grades. The policy was walked back after a petition was filed with Baltimore County Public Schools.
“They changed the rules. It wasn’t explained to us,” Shaffer said. “On the board we get great PowerPoint presentations, but that doesn’t always get explained to students. Students are out of the loop most of the time. Teachers don’t always give them the right information.”
No Escaping Politics
Shaffer admits she’s always been a political creature. She was part of the National High School Model United Nations team that traveled to New York, and she is an avid follower of CNN, Politico, and the podcast Pod Save America.
This spring she hopes to launch her own show, called “On the Move with Josie,” on the BCPS-TV cable channel to highlight clubs at different schools.
“I can’t escape politics,” said Shaffer, who was a volunteer on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “I was supposed to work at a polling location, but the date was the same day as my SATs and my mom didn’t want me skipping them.”
It’s no surprise that Shaffer hopes to attend George Washington University to major in political communications.
“A discussion shouldn’t start with ‘you’re wrong,’” Shaffer said. “I can respect your opinion and still disagree with it. It doesn’t have to be uncivil. By respecting your opinion you don’t have to argue.”
School board chair Edward J. Gilliss said Shaffer has a “great way” of communicating. “Josie’s confidence and gentle demeanor allows her to participate in a world of adults,” he said.
While Shaffer plans for college, Del. Hettleman predicts a bright future for her former intern.
“I would not be surprised if one day she ran for elected office,” Hettleman said. “We need more women in politics.”
For now, Shaffer says she will continue to ensure all students’ voices are heard and respected by the school board.
“Students today are a lot more mature,” Shaffer said. “We have a lot of technology at our fingertips. We should be treated as students who have opinions.”