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Harford’s student school board member lends support to Howard County’s student rep after lawsuit

The student representative for Harford County’s Board of Education is among 16 student board members across Maryland who signed a letter of support for the student voice — as well as for a Howard County student, whose recent vote against schools reopening triggered a lawsuit.

“It seems as if the student voice was trying to be silenced,” said Phoebe Bailey, a senior at Joppatowne High School. “If this student board member is being attacked, it seems as if we’re all being attacked.”

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What happens in Howard County could have “a trickle-down effect” on student representatives in other communities, Bailey added.

Two parents with children in Howard County Public Schools filed a lawsuit to strip the board of education member’s right to vote on issues before the board. It was filed after the parents noticed the student’s vote contributed to the decision to delay in-person learning.

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“We, the students of Maryland’s Boards of Education, are alarmed and disheartened to hear about the frivolous lawsuit filed against the Board of Education of Howard County attempting to remove the voting rights of its current student member, our colleague and friend,” the letter from the student members states.

Most school boards in the Baltimore region have one student member who can vote. Tony Conti, the attorney representing the parents, said 16 out of 24 local school boards in the state don’t allow students to vote.

Phoebe Bailey, a senior at Joppatowne High School, is the student representative on the Harford County Board of Education for the 2020-21 school year.
Phoebe Bailey, a senior at Joppatowne High School, is the student representative on the Harford County Board of Education for the 2020-21 school year. (Courtesy Harford County Public Schools)

Bailey has partial voting rights as the student representative on the 10-member Harford school board.

The letter serves as a proactive move by student representatives, which could support future student representatives, Bailey said.

“Potentially, next year, when a new group of student members comes in, they have something to roll with in continuing the push for full voting rights or continuing the push for partial voting rights,” Bailey said.

Harford student representatives typically participate in roll-call votes on matters before the board, but their votes do not count in every circumstance, such as the school system budget, personnel matters, redistricting in which students are moved from one school attendance area to another, and the annual calendar for the school year.

Bailey and the nine adult members were asked, during a school board meeting Monday, for their vote on the proposed calendar for the 2021-22 school year.

The calendar was approved unanimously, and Bailey cast an affirmative vote, but the official tally will reflect just the votes of the adult members, Bailey confirmed.

The student representative’s vote does count on other matters before the board, such as the consent agenda. The consent agenda involves a group of items that the board typically approves via a simple voice vote.

The consent agenda for Monday included the school system’s monthly personnel report, approving a request to buy and install a bronze “Husky” statue at Patterson Mill Middle/High School, the minutes of the Dec. 7 board meeting and a contract to purchase more than $300,000 worth of interactive whiteboards for schools using federal CARES Act funds allocated to Harford County. The board approved the consent agenda.

Bailey has been in her position since mid-July, representing more than 37,000 HCPS students amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The 17-year-old noted “it has definitely been a challenge,” especially with students learning virtually.

“It’s an honor,” she said of her role. “Students elected who they wanted to represent them.”

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She has served on several school system committees and work groups and noted that HCPS officials “are trying to make sure that the students, as a student body, are heard” in those gatherings.

The letter states students are the driving force behind education policies, and they deserve a voice, vote and stake in their education.

“Students now more than ever deserve to have a say when it comes to their education,” the letter states.

It goes on to say the issues students face that stem from the pandemic, mental health crisis and a reckoning on racial equality, only increase the need for the position with full voting rights.

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.

Bailey said she will turn 18 next August, and she anticipates being able to vote in local, state and Congressional midterm elections in 2022. She noted that, just because a person is 17 does not mean they have the mentality of an average 17-year-old.

“The fact that the students trusted you as an individual to hold that position, shows in a way that they’re trusting you to bring their opinions and voices to the table,” she said of being a student representative.

The 16 signees of the student board member letter stated students have been voting on local and state boards for half a century.

“Student members do not act capriciously, arbitrarily, or without thought and due diligence, and anyone that says otherwise is clearly not intuned with what it means to be a student board member,” the letter states. “They are working equally as hard as their adult counterparts.” The students stated it is not enough to only give a representative opinion, they should always be allowed to vote.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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