Student, 16, makes school board debut

The Baltimore Sun

Two years ago, Howard County school board member Sandra H. French was a substitute teacher in Andrew Gavelek's freshman English class.

Last week, Gavelek, 16, was the tall Reservoir High School rising senior sitting next to her on the raised board dais - the first Howard County student Board of Education member allowed by state law to vote on some issues.

How did the transition feel?

"Wonderful," said a smiling French after a nearly three-hour session Thursday night marked by several belabored policy discussions and a series of unexciting, unanimous votes. In fact, she acknowledged, she hadn't remembered the clean-cut young man in the fresh white shirt and pale blue tie until he mentioned her substitute session at River Hill High School, which he was attending at the time.

Gavelek's historic first vote was routine - to approve the night's agenda. He followed with three more procedural votes in a low-key, lightly attended meeting at board headquarters on Route 108. His family was entertaining out-of-town company and wasn't able to be there to watch.

Still, Gavelek said he was far from bored or disappointed, and he was careful in summing up his feelings about his new voting role.

"I don't want to jump to conclusions," he said. "It's definitely important conversation, all of it. You have to take education seriously."

Gavelek noted that Sondra Alinger of North Laurel brought her two children, Heather, a third-grader at Fulton Elementary, and Ben, who is about to enter Lime Kiln Middle School, to the meeting to demonstrate to the board her complaint that school backpacks are needlessly heavy.

"They're young," the student board member said.

High school-age students rarely address the board, he said. "That's the reason I'm here ... if they have something they want to be addressed. That's my function."

Gavelek will be able to vote on everything except site acquisitions, condemnation, consolidation, architect selection, appointment and salary of the superintendent, collective bargaining issues, employee discipline and other appeals, appointments, the capital and operating budgets and student suspensions and expulsions.

He missed two earlier board meetings in which he could have voted because of his summer activities with the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps. He was on the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Shearwater off the North Carolina coast during one meeting and then attended a weeklong program at the Coast Guard Academy's AIM (Academy Introduction Mission) program during the July 26 session. He is considering a career in the Coast Guard or Navy.

On Thursday night, Gavelek faced matters far more mundane than homeland security or drug interdiction on the high seas.

School Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin reported that 490 of 516 newly hired county teachers attended last week's orientation sessions.

"We will have a teacher in front of every student on opening day [Aug. 27]," Cousin said.

The board spent 45 minutes talking about a policy that allows students to leave school for religious observances. It took no action on the matter.

Two speakers brought up capital budget issues.

David Thalheimer of Columbia spoke twice, during the premeeting period, when any topic can be discussed, and during the capital budget hearing. He told the board that by his calculations no new western middle school will be needed and that if one is built, it will be little used.

Where more seats will be needed is in high schools, he said, including additions to River Hill and Long Reach. He also proposed redistricting for high schools next year to prevent imbalances later and to allow students starting ninth grade that year to remain in the same high school all four years.

Carol Zimmerman of Clarksville told the board that Atholton High needs $5.4 million in repairs right away, mainly to fix a leaky roof and an aging heating-cooling system. Atholton is one of four older high schools being considered for renovations by the board.

Board members agreed on a revised job description for a new school ombudsman and a schedule for preliminary capital budget consideration for projects to be submitted to state officials for funding in October.

By the time the meeting was over, the clock was just shy of 10 p.m.

Like other board members, Gavelek closed his white laptop computer. He chatted with French and prepared to go home. Luckily for him, it wasn't a school night.

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