Student voting rights delayed

School board puts off bill to give youngest panel member vote for at least a year


The Howard County Board of Education has delayed by at least a year giving its student member a vote as a result of the board's failure to work out details of legislation that would have offered partial voting rights as of 2006.

Supporters of student voting rights had hoped that legislation would be introduced as early as January to ensure that the student member could vote when the board expanded from five to eight members in December of next year.

But Thursday night's two-hour board meeting left members with more questions than answers about the proposal, and led to a unanimous vote to endorse the concept in principle and work out the sticking points later.

State Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat and supporter of partial student voting rights, said she was ready to introduce legislation in the General Assembly session that starts in January and was surprised by the board's decision to hold off.

"If they want to wait a year that is OK with me," Bobo said. "I would have done it this year."

Jeff Lasser, the board's student member, had a mixed reaction to the vote.

"I wanted to get it done by the end of my term in May," Lasser said. Still, he said, "I'm happy that the board supported the idea in principle unanimously."

Among Maryland's 24 school systems, a number of local school systems - including Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City - have student members with voting rights.

Supporters of partial student voting rights in Howard had hoped to win passage of legislation in time to give the student board member voting rights by December 2006 - in time to coincide with the board's expansion from five to seven members.

Now supporters of student suffrage will have to wait until at least July 2007 before achieving the goal.

Board members Courtney Watson, Joshua Kaufman and Patricia Gordon were the most vocal at Thursday's debate.

Gordon wanted to know who was going to elect the student member, any legal ramifications involved in giving the student member a vote and the power that the student member would possess.

"Either the student member is going to be involved in important issues or not," Gordon said. "We need a lawyer or attorney to point out what problems will arise."

Watson questioned the high number of student members from a handful of schools who have served on the board, noting that 80 percent of student members have come from Atholton, Centennial and River Hill high schools. "Seeing the disproportionate representation in the past is a red flag," she said.

Watson also questioned the election process, the estimated $10,000 to $20,000 cost associated with the election and ways of ensuring that the election would be fair.

Kaufman shared some of those concerns.

"I'm not worried about fraud ... but the whole process needs to be very, very, very detailed," Kaufman said.

Watson said she did not believe it was possible to deal with all those concerns in time for Bobo to introduce legislation during the 2006 session.

"I believe that you can work out the details so that this board can vote on this and have this to the legislature for September and have it put on the fast track," Watson said. Watson said she would hope all issues would be ironed out by the time the board expands from five to seven members in December 2006.

Lasser, however, said he was worried that all of the work to date might be lost if the legislation is delayed.

"We would lose the knowledge of the current board," said Lasser, a senior at Atholton High.

"This is not a stonewalling tactic," Kaufman responded. "If [the superintendent] presented this, I would say the same thing."

Lasser was joined at Thursday's meeting by dozens of student supporters - many of whom serve as student council representatives for their respective schools.

Lasser, Josh Michael, the student member on the State Board of Education, and several supporters took a few minutes to digest Watson's suggestions, regroup and strategize in the hall.

When the group emerged nearly a half-hour later, Kaufman made a motion to approve in principle giving the student member voting rights and directing the board's staff to form a committee with student participation that will craft legislation and procedure by the board's last meeting in April.

That motion passed, 5-0. Lasser - whose, sixth opinion-only vote is recorded but does not count - also was in favor.

Roger Plunkett, business, community and government relations officer for the school system, said that as a result of the board's vote the student member could receive partial voting rights by July 2007.

"It all depends on the work we do and the timeline and if we can develop a partnership with the Board of Elections," Plunkett said. "The students recognize that we have a number of details that we must address."

Several supporters of voting rights said they were pleased with the outcome but still had concerns.

"I think it is a great compromise," said Michael, a senior at Centennial High, who has partial voting rights as student member on the state Board of Education. "The students involved have agreed to work on the board's timeline."

Michael said he and the other student supporters will start working on ironing out all of the points of concern immediately.

Board member Mary Kay Sigaty, who has been a vocal supporter of student voting, said the students are the most important asset to the school system.

"I've seen what they've brought to the process," she said. "They are very proactive. I would have liked to see the board support it more fully at this time."

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