Teen on Howard panel lobbying to have vote

Student associate on school board wants his opinions recorded

September 23, 2001|By Megan Watzin | Megan Watzin,SUN STAFF

Every two weeks, five adult Howard County residents and one teen-ager sit down to wrestle with the problems of managing a school system with 45,700 students, 67 schools and 3,883 teachers and administrators.

When the discussion ends, the adult members of the Howard County Board of Education vote on issues ranging from placement of new schools to graduation standards, while the teen-ager sits and watches. But that soon could change in a small but symbolically meaningful way.

Starting in November, the board's student associate might gain the right to record his vote on every issue taken up by the board. The votes wouldn't affect the final decisions, but the student's views would be known.

The change is being pursued passionately by Dan Furman, a senior at Wilde Lake High School who is the current student associate to the Board of Education.

Furman, who shares his ideas with confidence and polish, has lined up enough support among board members that the proposed voting change appears to have a good chance of being approved when the board votes in early November.

"He's really been a good, hard worker on this. I can't praise him enough," said board member Sandra H. French.

"I hope they will approve this because students in Howard County will have their opinion displayed in a more concrete way," Furman said. "When the minutes of each meeting go out to the principals at the schools, they will be able to see what the students think."

Working to secure even a symbolic vote hasn't been easy. Furman faced tough questions when he presented his proposal to the school board Thursday night. But the student leader stood his ground.

When one board member asked why he wants to change his job title from "student associate" to "student member," he said the change would build public understanding and respect for the post.

Another member challenged his right to a role more similar to that of the adults on the board. "You can't be just like us because you got here a different way," said member Laura Waters.

Furman said he understands that his role is different and assured Waters and other members that he has no intention of trying to be "just like them."

After the meeting, Furman expressed confidence. "I am still hopeful that it will pass," he said. It appeared that two of the five adult board members - Waters and Patricia S. Gordon - had serious reservations about the proposal.

`Work toward a full vote'

The student leader's grasp of issues ranging from budget concerns to dress codes has impressed adults and students since he began his term as a student associate in January.

"He's a real go-getter," said board Chairwoman Jane B. Schuchardt. "I have no problems with him giving an opinion vote. I think that this is the beginnings of seeing how much of an effect he can have. ... He's an outstanding and bright student."

Earlier this year, while the board was debating redistricting issues, Dan fought for incoming high school juniors to remain at their original schools rather than be moved to new districts.

The board voted 3-2 in favor of allowing the students to remain where they were.

"I would hope that my opinions made a difference," said Furman.

Spare time is a rarity for Furman, an honor roll student who hopes to major in political science when he attends college next year. He makes time to participate in county and state student councils, student government at Wilde Lake, the School Improvement Team at Wilde Lake and sing in the school choir.

Furman said he decided to seek the recorded student vote to "show the board that we are responsible, too. ... We're not just radical teen-agers, and that we have opinions, too."

He said he was inspired when he learned that nine other Maryland counties allow their student school board members to vote in some capacity. Anne Arundel is the only Maryland county in which student school board members have full voting rights.

Furman hopes that the recorded vote would be the first step toward a more inclusive policy that would give the student representative a real vote.

Schuchardt said she doesn't see this happening in Howard County any time soon, but Furman is optimistic: "I think eventually they may work toward a full vote. ... It won't be me, but this is going to help to prove to the board that students can be responsible in this position," he said.

Nomination of candidates

Even without a vote, the responsibilities of a Howard County school board student associate are considerable - duties include attending 6-hour-long meetings every two weeks, maintaining a manual for his or her successor, and staying in contact with a designated student representative from every high school in Howard - particularly when combined with the academic workload of a high school senior. But Furman argues that there should be more to the job.

Beyond adding the vote, he hopes to enhance the job's stature by clearly defining its responsibilities. The board is expected to vote on proposals to establish these responsibilities.

Furman also wants school administrators to nominate candidates for his job to ensure that several competent contenders are considered each year, and he hopes to help launch a leadership program that would prepare middle school pupils for leadership in high school.

He plans to ask for money to survey Howard County high school students on issues so that he can accurately represent their opinions to the board. "My two main goals for this year are to better student representation at the board, and to more effectively address policy issues," Furman said.

The public may comment on Furman's proposals at a hearing scheduled for Oct. 25 at the Board of Education building. The board is expected to make its final vote Nov. 8.

Sun staff writer Tanika White contributed to this article.

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