Baltimore County school board’s student representative, Christian Thomas, scribbled a message on a sheet of paper during a September board meeting and raised it high above his head.
Following years of heated debate, the 12-person board was preparing to vote on whether to renovate or rebuild several high schools in the northeastern part of the county.
The 17-year-old’s pro-renovation sign read “renovations =/= bad.” But although he directly represents roughly 111,000 schoolchildren, Thomas can’t vote on budgetary matters, including capital improvements. The adult members narrowly voted against the renovations.
“Today I find myself sitting here as so many student board members before me have sat: powerless,” Thomas said ahead of the vote. “I can do nothing, as usual, but use my voice.”
Thomas is part of a group of civic-minded teenagers who serve on Maryland’s boards of education and are calling to expand voting rights for students, even as some adults seek to limit their influence. As high-profile decisions come before their boards, the students seek to weigh in more.
The young board members have organized a coalition to advocate for putting more power behind their voices on the government panels that oversee their education. Their budding movement raises important questions about voting rights for minors and representation for an estimated 882,000 public students in Maryland.
Some of the students, who have lived through the March For Our Lives, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, say they’re tired of waiting on adults. And while school board members who are parents represent the interests of families, student members say they have experiences and insights garnered while attending school during the coronavirus pandemic — something older generations can’t offer.
The newly formed Maryland Association of Student Board Members has connected peers across the state.
In Western Maryland, Washington County student board member Tanish Gupta ran unopposed and worried his one-year term would be lonely. Miles away in Baltimore County, Thomas found himself with the same concern. Upon his election, Thomas created a text message chain that he nicknamed “SMOB besties” — including an acronym for Student Member Of the Board — and began adding other local and state student board members.
“We have a lot of spirit among ourselves, as well as respectful discourse,” Thomas said. “I don’t know if I’d be as happy on the board if I didn’t have this.”
Gupta soon pitched the group about forming the coalition of student board members, based on a similar group recently created in California.
“Communication is so important,” Gupta said. “You don’t know what you don’t have until you find out it exists.”
The teens hope their nonpartisan association will outlast their one-year terms and help future student representatives navigate local government. In their constitution’s mission statement, the students said they seek to “better represent their constituents, allow for statewide youth advocacy, and provide support in the effort to expand the rights and presence of Student Board Members across the state.”
According to the National School Boards Association, little research exists on student representation, even as the organization describes a “consensus” on the role’s positive influence on students.
A 2020 association survey found 31 states have a local option for students to sit on school boards. In California, a state law requires districts to appoint a student to the board upon receiving a petition signed by 10% of public high school students or signed by 500 students of high school age in the jurisdiction.
In Maryland, a student board member’s influence varies widely from county to county. Some students are nominated or selected for boards on a rotating basis from a county’s high schools. Some don’t sit on the dais with adult members, but at their own table. Some counties limit students’ ability to participate in votes, particularly those related to budgetary matters or personnel decisions.
For example, Carroll County’s student representative Devanshi Mistry pushed her fellow board members in September to consider stronger COVID-19 mitigation efforts, such as masking in schools. The board did not take any action at the time, leaving Mistry, who does not have voting rights, disappointed that they weren’t more proactive.
The scene in Carroll County sits in contrast to Howard County, where several parents filed a lawsuit in December after the school board repeatedly tied 4-4 during the 2020-21 school year over allowing students to return to in-person classes amid the pandemic. The ties included the votes of Howard’s student board representative, who can act on all issues except those pertaining to budget, personnel or other restricted matters.
The lawsuit argues that allowing a student to vote violates the state’s constitution because the student is almost always under 18 and can’t vote in elections or hold elected office. A Maryland court of appeals agreed to hear arguments in November in the case after a Howard County court struck down the lawsuit.
Regardless of the outcome, plaintiff Traci Spiegel wants more Marylanders to consider the issue of student voting rights.
“A student can have a voice without having a vote and still be impactful,” Spiegel said. “When you are a taxpayer, it’s a little frustrating that someone who is 16 and doesn’t have the life experience that I have has an equivalent vote on what happens to my children.”
Maryland’s tradition of local control over voting rights can be traced to the 1916 Flexner Report, named for one of its authors, according to John Woolums, director of governmental relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. The report recommended that the governor or a separate agency select people to serve on boards of education — a system that lasted in Maryland for most of the 20th century, Woolums said.
In recent decades, a growing number of counties won authority from the Maryland General Assembly to convert their school boards from appointed to elected or a hybrid of the two. Meanwhile, some counties created a position for a student representative, Woolums said, although how much power that member has evolved differently by jurisdiction.
The Maryland Association of Boards of Education, the organization that provides services and orientations to school board members, generally supports each county’s right to set any limits on its student representative’s role, Woolums said.
That may change: Some student school board members have spoken with Montgomery County Del. Eric Luedtke about a possible bill that would expand or standardize their voting power. Luedtke said he was encouraged by the teens’ interest in civic engagement and connects it to a recent wave of student activism.
However, the students have not yet come to a consensus on the bill’s specifics and are awaiting the outcome of the Howard County lawsuit. That means a bill may not come in the next session; current student representatives may need to pass the torch to their successors.
“If we could press a button and every student in Maryland could get voting rights, we would,” Gupta said, adding that he and one of his predecessors made their case for expanded rights to the Washington County school board. “Where we differ is on what we think could pass in the General Assembly. There will be opposition. … We do expect a backlash.”
The students are seeking more responsibility at a time when school boards nationwide are facing a wave of hostility from some residents. Mask mandates, vaccine policies, the teaching of Black history and other hallmarks of the culture wars spill into public comments during school board meetings.
Thomas’ mother, Susan Diaz, said serving on the school board is a good learning experience for the senior at Eastern Technical High School in Essex, who aspires to a career in politics.
”The mama bear in you wants to be angry in that moment because someone is talking to your baby like that,” Diaz said. “But I teach him he has to have tough skin.”
Some of the teens look for inspiration to Anne Arundel County, where the student member has enjoyed full voting rights for several decades. Student representative Bunmi Omisore pointed out that most students serve a term of only one year, while their adult counterparts typically serve at least four years. Allowing full participation gives students the ability to accomplish more during that shorter window, the 18-year-old said.
“The most significant thing you can do to help your student board members is to drop the word ‘student,’” she said. “I’ve never felt any less powerful than my colleagues on the board, because I’m not.”
Omisore has considered her time on the school board to be a positive experience. Her colleagues recently gave her the opportunity to chair an equity committee.
The senior at Arundel High School in Gambrills counts herself among the group calling for more voting rights for student school board members. Boards that don’t have student representation or don’t listen to their student members are creating a blind spot, she said.
“What’s the point of sitting at a 10-hour board meeting if you aren’t part of the process?” she said.