Harford school board votes down amendment to allow student rep vote on board officers

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A proposal to allow the student representative on the Harford County Board of Education to vote for board president and vice president was defeated Monday evening, amid concerns the student member could be subject to undue influence from adult board members.

“The position is just ripe to be misused, and for that reason I think we should protect that student from that pressure,” board member Joseph Hau said.

His colleague, member Al Williamson, made the motion to allow the student representative to cast a vote for board president and vice president during a discussion on revisions to the overall policy on electing officers.

“The next board here, there’s going to be a lot of new members, so the student isn’t at any less of a disadvantage than any of the rest of the new members,” Williamson said.

His motion failed on a 5-3 vote; Williamson and members Rachel Gauthier and Jansen Robinson voted for it, but President Joseph Voskuhl, Vice President Laura Runyeon and members Robert Frisch, Nancy Reynolds and Hau voted against it. Member Thomas Fitzpatrick was absent.

The amendment was offered a year after the board’s nine adult board members voted 5-4 for Voskuhl and Runyeon as their leaders over Williamson and Gauthier.

Six adult board members are elected from Harford’s councilmanic districts, and three are appointed by the governor.

Three of the elected members — Frisch, Reynolds and Voskuhl – are not running for re-election this year. Runyeon, who was appointed along with Hau and Williamson by Gov. Larry Hogan in 2015, has said she only plans to serve one term.

The board president and vice president are elected by the adult members and serve two-year terms. Voskuhl and Runyeon were elected in 2017, and their terms end June 30, 2019, as do all the adult board members terms, which will mean the new board members taking office in mid-2019 will be choosing new leaders.

The student representative, a high school senior, serves a one-year term and is elected by the Harford County Regional Association of Student Councils, according to the Harford County Public Schools website.

Harford student representatives have partial voting rights, but they cannot vote on matters such as school attendance areas, real property, the appointment and salary of a superintendent, employee appointments, promotions or discipline, collective bargaining, student suspensions and expulsions or school calendar and curriculum, according to state law.

Student members are asked,however, to give preferential votes on most matters before the board. Current student representative Matthew Resnik voted Monday for Williamson’s motion; it was not counted in the total, but it was recorded as preferential.

Patrick Spicer, lawyer for the school system, said the state statute is “silent” with respect to allowing student members to vote on board officers, which means it is within the school board’s discretion to allow it.

He also surveyed school boards in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore City, which have voting student members, and Baltimore City is the only one in that group that precludes its student representative from voting on board officers, Spicer said.

“This sort of reflects the board’s confidence in the student member in terms of exercising responsibility,” Williamson said.

Resnik echoed that sentiment.

“This vote will be reflective of how the members feel about the student member on the board,” said Resnik, a C. Milton Wright High School senior, who is a candidate for the Republican Central Committee.

Gauthier, who seconded Williamson’s motion, said Harford public school students are one of the largest “stakeholder groups” the board represents. There are about 37,800 students in the system.

“If we want them to have a vote on the leadership of the board, I think that it would be appropriate to have the student member allowed into that conversation,” Gauthier said.

Hau, Frisch and Runyeon expressed concerns about the student member being influenced on their vote for board officers.

Hau said the student member’s position, of all board positions, is the most susceptible to “let’s call it, electioneering, prior to them coming onto the board.”

Frisch, who was elected in 2010 and is the longest-serving elected board member, said voting rights for a student representative were limited as a way to protect that student.

“They already have enough on their plate,” he said. “They’re a full-time student; many of them are taking accelerated courses and trying to prepare themselves for life beyond high school.”

Runyeon said board members “don’t want student members being influenced by adult members because they’re trying to win votes for election.”

“These are very bright students with lots of great ideas, but they still can sometimes be easily influenced,” she said.

Robinson said he understands concerns about improper influence of student members, but “that could also go for adult members.”

“The student board members that I have served with, they have exercised and demonstrated a professionalism and a knowledge way above some of the folks that are in elected office,” Robinson, who was elected in 2014 and is seeking re-election, said.

The board also discussed overall changes to the officer election policy after the vote on Williamson’s motion was defeated.

The updated policy removes most of the language that remained even after the new state statute governing the Harford board was passed in 2009.

The updated policy simply states that the board’s secretary/treasurer, or the superintendent, asks board members for nominations for president. The first nominee who receives five or more votes from their colleagues becomes president, according to the policy.

The same procedure is used to elect the vice president.

Frisch asked for additional language making it clear that every candidate nominated should receive a second, and no vote will be taken until all nominations are made.

The board did not take action Monday and agreed to send the policy back to its policy review committee for revisions to include Frisch’s language.

The contested election for president and vice president last summer indicated a split among board members that has persisted during the past year in other areas, such as the budget.

Resnik said after the meeting that “the majority of the student population would not vote favorably on issues” presented by members who voted against Williamson’s motion.

“They know that a student member being able to vote on the new president and vice president would be a crushing blow to their side,” he said of the opponents.

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