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Howard County parents file lawsuit challenging student school board member’s voting rights

Two Howard County Public School System parents have filed a lawsuit to strip the student school board member’s right to vote on issues before the board, after the student cast a deciding vote to keep schools from returning to in-person classes.

The suit argues that giving a high school student the right to vote on school board decisions violates Maryland’s constitution because the student is not 18 years old and is not eligible to vote in elections or to hold an elected office.

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Most school boards in the Baltimore region have one student member who can vote. The student — a junior or senior — is elected by middle and high school students, and serves a one-year term. The student member can vote on most issues but cannot on some, including school boundaries, selection of a superintendent, the budget, collective bargaining contracts and discipline issues.

Tony Conti, the attorney representing the parents, said 16 out of 24 local school boards in the state don’t allow students to vote.

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The lawsuit, filed by parents Traci Spiegel and Kimberly Ford, explains that the board — with its seven adult members and one student — has recently been gridlocked over whether to give the system’s 58,000 students the option to return to in-person learning. The school system has been online-only since March, and in-person classes are not scheduled to begin before April.

Proposals to allow students to return to in-person classes, if their parents approve, have repeatedly failed on tie votes of 4-4.

“These are complicated times, but this is a simple issue,” said Spiegel in a statement. “When I started watching the meetings and saw every key vote ending in 4-4 ties with no progress, I was in complete shock. When I found out one of the members was a senior in high school casting stalemate votes as a minor, grinding our school system to a halt, I knew something had to be done.

“Why is it an even number? The fact that there is eight, it baffles me,” she said. “The board is supposed to work together.” Spiegel said parents have been angered that even when health metrics were better, the board did not move to get students back in school buildings.

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Ford said the dysfunction of the school board is “not acceptable anymore.” She said she wants school leaders to create a plan that gives families a choice to return to school.

Kathy Hanks, the administrator for the school board, declined to comment for this article, saying the board does not comment on litigation.

The suit was filed Wednesday in Howard County Circuit Court.

Baltimore County’s student board member Josh Muhumuza said he hopes the lawsuit isn’t successful. The rights of student board members have been under attack in some counties, he said, including instances in which they are not given a seat around the board table and their ideas are brushed aside.

“Other counties absolutely actively disrespect the student rights,” he said. ”I don’t think it will be successful, but it just shows some malicious efforts by some.”

Conti, who also is the parent of a Howard County high school student, said he believes the court could rule in January, although he said if necessary he will ask for an expedited hearing.

The parents who filed the lawsuit want a choice of whether to send their children back, he said, and they are not being given that choice because the board is split.

After the recent election, some board members were replaced, but not enough to change the balance of power on the board, Conti said. “All the politicians refuse to put their necks out, and they are using the student as a pawn,” he said.

Conti said he believes the adult board members are hiding behind division on the board on whether to return to classrooms and pointing fingers at each other rather than being held accountable for their positions.

He said the parents are filing the suit because they don’t believe the elected members will change their positions.

“We have given up on an aggressive agenda,” he said, adding that teachers have celebrated any delays in going back to class and the superintendent appears to be hamstrung by the board. “The writing is on the wall. … If there isn’t a change we aren’t going back to school until September.”

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