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Protecting the vote and voice of Howard County’s ‘SMOB’ | COMMENTARY

The Howard County Public School headquarters at 10910 Clarksville Pike, Ellicott City, Maryland.
The Howard County Public School headquarters at 10910 Clarksville Pike, Ellicott City, Maryland. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

“He is a child and does not have the understanding about the real world and does not deserve (sic) a vote.”

“The issue is that he is not elected by the taxpayers so perhaps he should not have a vote that is equal to the members who were elected by the taxpayers.”

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— Posts on Facebook groups opposed to voting rights for the Student Member of the Board of Education of Howard County

Individuals disappointed with recent school reopening decisions in Howard County, one of Maryland’s top performing school districts, are pursuing a historically dangerous path. Two parents have filed a lawsuit requesting an injunction to strip the voting rights of the Student Member of the Board of Education of Howard County — commonly referred to as the “SMOB” — after he cast the deciding vote last month to keep education virtual in the county for the time being.

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But the vote, and therefore the voice, of the Student Member position must be protected at all costs. The historical significance of a competent student leader selected through fair, democratic processes to directly influence policy cannot be lost in modern political quarrels.

This lawsuit has the potential to set a precedent in the Maryland judicial system that could disrupt the powers of the eight other SMOBs who have voting rights established by law. Moreover, it represents a rejection of an essential precedent: that student participation over time is expanded and validated, not retracted and dismissed.

In Howard County, the Student Member of the Board is not a new position. The seat has been active for over 30 years and has been held by students with liberal and conservative ideologies. The unifying factor between politically differing SMOBs has been their common goal of elevating student voice.

Despite this tradition of student advancement, misinformation about the position persists. In Howard County, the SMOB is not allowed to vote on matters that concern budget, personnel, or boundary adjustments. They are, however, responsible for meeting with students and voting on policy matters, including whether to reopen schools — an extremely critical responsibility.

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While the advancement of SMOB candidates at every election stage is decided by student vote, critics have accused county officials on all levels of grooming compliant participants that will carry out the will of the school system. While these theories are entertaining, they disregard just how student-led the process is, even if county officials had the time or desire to engineer such a scheme. HCPSS SMOBs, past and present, have always been their own unique advocate and put their constituents above any other entity.

As longtime education advocates in Howard County, we have developed close connections with several of the recent SMOBs. Claims that these students are unequipped to handle the responsibilities of the position are ill-founded and neglect the shocking competence of our peers. Many of them are more knowledgeable on the pressing challenges in our education system than voting adults, and their expertise is often comparable to that of other board members that come from a variety of professional backgrounds.

The SMOB is the only board member that experiences the day to day operations of the school system, making the SMOB a trustee for the will of the student body. They must weigh a variety of factors, not just raw student opinion, when formulating complex solutions for complex challenges. Without a student vote, the Board of Education is not politically beholden to creating a quality experience for students. They would be politically beholden to creating a quality experience for parents. And while those parents are by and large the financiers of the school system, suffice it to say our public education system is not built around the advancement of parents.

We’re never going to fully agree on how our elected officials vote. But pinning the blame of decisive votes on student board members and attempting to strip away their voting powers is purely an assault on democracy. Despite the partisan and divisive nature of modern-day politics, the solution to an unsatisfactory vote or even legislative gridlock is almost never the removal of an institution in its entirety. We must protect the right of student board members to vote on behalf of students in Howard County, in Maryland, and across the country.

Christopher Lidard (chris@lidard.com) is a student, and Hunter Craig (huntercraig71108@gmail.com) is a former student, in the Howard County Public School System.

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