Proposal to give more power to student board member will get a hearing


October 09, 2005|By HANAH CHO

As the Howard County Board of Education weighs a proposal to grant partial voting rights to the student board member, the five-member group wants to hear from taxpayers and voters at a public hearing scheduled for Oct. 27.

Currently, student board member Jeff Lasser has an opinion vote that's recorded but does not count.

Lasser, a senior at Atholton High School, said an official vote would add weight to a student's perspective.

Last week, school board members peppered Lasser with questions and concerns about his proposal that would allow the student member to vote on all issues except the budget, disciplinary personnel matters, school boundaries and closings and collective bargaining.

Lasser stood ready with answers and suggestions during his presentation Thursday. He was aided by Centennial High senior Josh Michael -- another student leader and student member of the State Board of Education -- and supported by more than four dozen high school students at the board meeting.

A serious concern, voiced by board member Patricia S. Gordon, involved accountability. Gordon noted that many of the school boards in the state that have student members with voting rights are appointed, while the Howard County school board is an elected body.

Since she is held accountable by taxpayers and voters, Gordon questioned who would hold the student member accountable.

"My concern is that there would not be that responsibility -- a student board member is on the board for a year and makes decisions that are in place for a number of years," she said, noting that the selection process for a student member is not as rigorous as for adult members.

In Howard County, student board members are elected by middle and high school students. Candidates are vetted by the Howard County Association of Student Councils.

Among Maryland's 24 school systems, all but Kent County have a student representative or member sitting on local school boards. But only five local boards grant student members some type of voting privileges, according to the State Department of Education.

Anne Arundel County's student member can vote on all matters, while those in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties have limited voting rights. The student member on the State Board of Education also has partial voting rights.

Of those jurisdictions, only Montgomery County's school board is elected. (Prince George's County board, which became an appointed body in 2002, is set to return to an elected body next year.)

In response to the school board's accountability concern, Lasser pointed out that students also are taxpayers through purchases and after-school jobs.

Lasser also suggested that the school board could appoint a student member from the top two vote-getters in the countywide student election to ensure accountability because the board would be responsible for its choice.

School board Chairman Courtney Watson questioned whether the issue could be brought to a referendum so that voters can decide on the issue and asked Lasser to come back with research.

If approved, the proposal would go into effect next year when the board expands to seven members.

While Gordon expressed serious reservation about the proposal, other board members say they have not made up their minds.

"They made a very compelling case, and I like the idea of empowering students in general," member Joshua M. Kaufman said. "I want to take a little bit more time considering the implications and potential downsides and hear from the public about whether they have any concerns."

Land-trade deal

The Howard County school system has reached an agreement with the county Department of Recreation and Parks on a land-swap deal that would provide a site for Bushy Park Elementary School's replacement building.

The school system would acquire a 20-acre property owned by the department that is adjacent to Bushy Park Elementary, off Route 97 in Glenwood.

In exchange, recreation and parks would get a 14-acre property near Laurel Woods Elementary School, which would be a potential site for a community park, school officials said.

The school system's land on the Laurel Woods site is steep, heavily wooded and bisected by a creek -- qualities that make for an impractical school site or other facility, according to a report presented Thursday to the school board.

The school system plans to build a replacement building for Bushy Park Elementary on the school's existing land, and the property it would acquire from the Department of Recreation and Parks. The new school is to open in 2007.

School officials are looking into other possible uses for the current Bushy Park school when the replacement building is completed. The state Interagency Committee on School Construction has approved the construction of the school on the 20-acre site.

A public hearing on the property exchange is scheduled for Nov. 10.

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