Seeking vote on schools

The Baltimore Sun

Every other Monday night during the school year, Fallston High School senior D.J. Sigworth attends the Harford County school board meeting.

Like the other eight board members, he sits through jargon-laden curriculum discussions, debates over budget cuts and a string of Power Point presentations. Then, when the talking is done, the other eight members cast their votes.

Sigworth, the board's sole student member, cannot.

He is prohibited by state law from voting.

And he wants very much to change that.

He and a group of Harford County students are making an aggressive push to gain the franchise for the board's student member. The proposal has been kicking around in Harford for several years. But Sigworth and other students decided to focus on the issue this year.

"I am very confident this will be the year," said Sigworth, 17.

The move comes in part as a response to the board's announcement last spring that it would consider adopting school uniforms. Uniforms are almost uniformly opposed by students.

Sigworth and others did not like the idea that the board could tell them what to wear without any say from those who would be wearing the outfits.

"We thought, 'If they can impose uniforms, what can they do next?' " said Sigworth's friend, Greg Waterworth, president of the Fallston High School Student Council and a proponent of student voting.

Waterworth, Sigworth and other students have been working hard to make their case. Over the past few months, they have talked to PTA groups, board members and, most importantly, the county's state representatives.

It is this last group that will determine whether the student member of the board - known as a SMOB, and pronounced "smob" - will get to vote. School board voting procedures are under control of the state legislature.

So far, Sigworth says, the legislators they have approached seem to like the idea.

"They're mature enough at their age to handle this properly," said Del. Daniel B. Riley, a Democrat who represents the Route 40 corridor into Cecil County. "People have to get it out of their heads that these are school kids. They are young adults."

Riley says he is willing to sponsor a bill in the next General Assembly session that would grant voting rights to the student representative. In general, if a state legislator proposes a bill covering his or her county's school board, the rest of legislature will pass it as a courtesy.

State Sen. Barry Glassman, a Republican who represents northern Harford, said he would also consider sponsorship.

"I've got a junior in the county schools, and these young people are far more advanced than we give them credit for," said Glassman, whose son attends North Harford High School.

Meanwhile, most members of the Harford school board strongly oppose the idea.

"I am totally, 100 percent opposed to it," said school board President Patrick Hess. "There is no way a child of 17 has the life experience to make decisions about the schools of Harford County."

Board member John Smilko agreed.

"Knowledge is not a good substitute for experience," he said. "I just don't see the value" in allowing the student member to vote.

Smilko mentioned the uniform issue as an example of how student voting might go wrong. He said students should not have the ability to affect such an issue so directly.

(The Harford school board set aside the uniform issue in October, saying that it had to focus on economic issues.)

The students have found support among some parents.

"Some of these kids are old enough to vote and to fight in wars," said Cindy Mumby, who has a child at Patterson Mill High School and has been active in Harford school issues for more than a decade. "I don't understand what the bias is here."

She pointed out that unlike the SMOB, who is elected by the members of the Harford County Association of Student Councils, the Harford school board is appointed by the governor. She suggested only half-jokingly that the elected student member deserves the vote more than the rest of the board.

"You could make a case that the student representative is more representative of the community than anyone else on the board," she said.

In Harford County, student members of the board, who are always seniors, serve one-year terms. So even if the voting push succeeds, Sigworth probably will never get to vote on the board.

Of Maryland's 24 school districts, about a quarter allow student board members to vote. Howard, Prince George's, Montgomery and Baltimore counties allow voting. Those counties permit SMOBs to vote on policy decisions, such as uniforms or curriculum, but not on personnel and budget decisions, which are generally seen as most sensitive. Anne Arundel County, alone among school boards nationwide, allows its student members to vote on all issues.

The Maryland Association of Student Councils is also supporting the Harford proposal.

"The student representatives are just as important as any other board member," said the association's treasurer, Malcolm Peacock, 14, a freshman at Dulaney High School in Baltimore County.

The association's president, David Murray, 16, a junior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George's County, said that once they see how student board member voting works in practice, opponents generally change their minds.

"They say it's a really valuable resource," he said.

Peacock said the association had ambitions far beyond Harford County. He hopes to eventually extend SMOB voting to all Maryland school boards.

"Eventually," he said, "we want the SMOBs to have full voting rights."

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