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Appeal granted for lawsuit seeking to limit Howard County student school board member’s voting rights

The Court of Appeals of Maryland last week granted an appeal to a lawsuit trying to limit the vote of the student member on the Howard County Board of Education.

The appeal, granted June 22, comes after two Howard County Public School System parents filed suit challenging the voting rights of the school board’s student member.

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The lawsuit, filed in December, failed in March in Howard County Circuit Court.

The parents, Traci Spiegel and Kimberly Ford, filed the lawsuit after the school board repeatedly had tied 4-4 when voting on critical issues during the 2020-21 school year, such as allowing students to return to in-person classes amid the coronavirus pandemic if their parents approved.

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The lawsuit argues that allowing a high school student the right to vote on school board decisions violates the state’s constitution because the student is a minor and is ineligible to vote in elections or hold an elected office, according to Spiegel.

“It is not for this court to determine whether it is prudent to have students with voting power on boards of education. Rather, this court merely must determine whether it is legal,” Howard Circuit Court Judge Richard S. Bernhardt wrote in his 18-page opinion filed March 25.

“The court finds that the General Assembly’s decision to create a selection process whereby students choose the student member of the board is not violative of the Maryland constitution.”

The Howard County student board member — a junior or senior — is elected by middle and high school students and serves a one-year term. The student representative can vote on all issues except those pertaining to budget, personnel or other restricted matters, according to the school system’s website. Recent Howard High School graduate Zach Koung was the board’s 2020-21 student member, and Howard High’s Peter Banyas, a rising senior, will serve a one-year term for the 2021-22 academic year, starting in July.

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Spiegel, who is a parent of two Howard County students, filed the initial lawsuit in December after a vote to send students back to school in person ended in gridlock.

Although she is a firm proponent of student members’ voices being heard, Spiegel said it seemed inappropriate for a student to cast a vote on a critical issue like reopening schools.

“The student member doesn’t have the ability to vote on budget or personnel, but for some reason had the ability to vote on going back to school virtual or nonvirtual, and I found that disconcerting,” she said.

The school board did eventually vote in late January in favor of allowing hybrid in-person learning, which began March 1 with a phased-in approach for students.

Ford, also a parent of two county students, said it should not be up to students to vote on critical issues.

“I think [the student member of the board] is a great way for students to voice their opinions, [but] I think an opinion is much different than a vote in something as critical as what do we do in a pandemic,” she said.

A hearing for the appeal is set to take place in November.

School board Chair Chao Wu in March praised Judge Bernhardt’s decision, saying the student member performs a “crucial role” for the school board.

“The Board of Education has operated with the firm belief that our student member of the board position is in compliance with the law, and it is gratifying to have that vindicated,” Wu wrote in a March 26 email. “I believe it is important to listen to our students’ voices on issues that impact them directly.”

Both Wu and fellow school board member Vicky Cutroneo declined to comment, saying the board does not comment on ongoing litigation.

Ford said she hopes the hearing will result in limiting the voting rights of the student member of the board to not include issues like reopening schools.

“I think a student should have a voice at the table, not a binding vote like the other adults,” Ford said. “That may do away with the four-by-four gridlock votes that are keeping things at a standstill, and each meeting could be productive and result in votes that keep us moving forward.”

Baltimore Sun Media reporter Jacob Calvin Meyer contributed to this article.

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