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Former student school board members back Howard representative in lawsuit challenging voting rights

More than 100 former student school board members in Maryland weighed in Tuesday on a lawsuit by two Howard County parents that aims to strip the student member’s right to vote on board matters, saying it is an “egregious attack” on student representation.

The amicus brief, filed by Washington, D.C.-based law firm Venable LLP and backed by 128 former student board members across the state, is a request by a third party for the court to consider its contents in pursuit of influencing the court’s decision. The brief argues the lawsuit, filed by parents Traci Spiegel and Kimberly Ford, is invalid and their motion for summary judgment, which would lead to a court decision without a trial, should be denied.

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“The student member is an appointed member of the board, not an elected member subject to the age requirements for elections and elected officials in Maryland’s constitution,” according to a Venable news release.

The large list of former student members includes people who have served on boards all across the state since 1975. The top amici — the legal term used for the person filing the brief — is Anthony Clark Arend, who was the state’s first student board member to have voting rights when he served in the role for the Anne Arundel Board of Education in the 1975-76 school year. Arend is now the chair of Georgetown University’s Department of Government.

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Other notable amici include Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and Wilde Lake High School Principal Marcy Leonard. Olszewski was the Baltimore County school board student member in the 1999-2000 school year, while Leonard was Howard’s first student board member in the 1988-89 school year.

“[The] plaintiffs’ argument has no basis in Maryland law,” according to the brief filed Tuesday. “As such, it is an egregious attack on not just the student member, but on the hundreds of thousands of Maryland public school students, including those in Howard County, who make their voices heard each year by participating in the student member selection process.”

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 16 in Howard County Circuit Court by Spiegel and Ford, 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.

Seventeen of the 25 Maryland school boards don’t allow students to vote. However, most school boards in the Baltimore region, including the state board, have one student member who can vote on most topics. The student — a junior or senior — is appointed by middle and high school students and serves a one-year term. In Howard, the student member can vote on most topics except those involving redistricting, personnel, legal issues, the budget and “other restricted matters,” according to the school system’s website. Howard High School senior Zach Koung is the board’s 2020-21 student member.

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Tony Conti, the attorney representing the parents, wrote in an email Wednesday that the amicus brief is “inappropriate at this stage in the litigation.” In mid-January, the board secured pro bono legal services from the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at the Georgetown University Law Center.

“Surprisingly, as lawyers who contend to have a desire to have the constitutional issue resolved by the court, they raise a host of hyper-technical arguments to try to convince the court that it should avoid the constitutional issue,” Ford wrote in her post. “Unfortunately, due to their delays and additional technical motions filed, we may not be able to obtain a speedy hearing and resolution of the matter, but we will do our best.”

The Howard County school board has tied on a number of votes over the past few months on topics ranging from school resource officers to matters regarding the school reopening process amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In September, Koung surprised some of his fellow board members with a motion to remove school resource officers from the school system’s middle and high schools. The motion failed, but the topic is still being discussed by the school system and the board, as well as the state legislature. Then, in November and December, the board tied on multiple votes that could have led to an earlier return of students to classrooms. Koung voted against the motions.

Following the votes, some on social media — mostly in community Facebook groups — have criticized the board’s student member, which caused school system Superintendent Michael Martirano to speak out against the online “bullying” of Koung.

A month later, newly appointed Del. Reid Novotny, introduced legislation in the General Assembly to strip student school board members in Maryland of their vote if it is a “deciding vote” on a motion. He said he filed the legislation to end the “gridlock” happening with the Howard County school board.

In the amicus brief, Venable writes that the student member is not an elected member of the board and rather is appointed by fellow students, which Venable believes is not prohibited by the Maryland constitution.

“[The] plaintiffs, two parents unhappy with actions taken collectively by the board, have singled out the student member as the reason for their dismay,” according to Venable’s brief. “They believe that the solution to their dissatisfaction is to strip him — and only him — of his voting rights.”

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