2014 | Politics

Controversial Bill Increasing Student Power On School Board Returns To Legislative Agenda

Chances of passage seem greater this time, but some still harbor doubts on proposal

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Del. Anne Kaiser and incoming Attorney General Brian Frosh

In the run-up to next month’s start of the 2015 session of the Maryland General Assembly, the county’s House delegation tonight is holding a hearing on a dozen bills whose impact is limited to Montgomery County. The proposals range from the very parochial (loosening restrictions on alcoholic beverage licenses in Laytonsville, pop. 350) to the somewhat humorous (repealing 1950s era restrictions on the number of pinball machines allowed on one floor of a public building).

But if many of the bills at tonight’s hearing are likely to stir little debate, one proposal that has been controversial in the past – expanding the voting powers of the student member of the county Board of Education – is back on the agenda after an absence of a couple of years.

With the impending departure of a leading opponent of the proposal, Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Chevy Chase, from the legislature, a major hurdle to its passage apparently has been removed. But controversy continues to surround the bill, as evidenced by a discussion last week in the County Council – which voted to adopt a “no position” on the measure, after supporting it in prior years. In addition, County Executive Ike Leggett has not yet made a decision on whether to support the legislation, his spokesman said.

There has been a student member of the board – commonly referred to the “SMOB” – since the late 1970s, chosen by an electorate of middle and high school students that today numbers more than 77,000. (About 80 percent of the student electorate usually votes, a percentage significantly higher than recent voter turnout among their adult counterparts.) A 1989 law gave the student school board member limited voting rights.

A bill to expand those voting rights to include issues such as capital and operating budgets, collective bargaining, changes in school population boundaries and school closings has been pre-filed by 13 of the 24 incoming members of the county’s House delegation in advance of the January session. (Under the bill, the one area in which the student member would continue to be barred from voting involves so-called negative personnel matters, such as disciplinary action against teachers and other school employees.)

“My guess is that it has a pretty good chance of passing,” said Sen. Nancy King, D-Montgomery Village, recently elected chair of the county’s eight-member Senate delegation. The bill was part of a legislative agenda adopted unanimously last month by the county’s Board of Education.

Even more significantly, no member of the incoming Montgomery County legislative delegation appears poised to step into the role played in the 2012 session by the departing Frosh, who next month will be sworn in as the state’s new attorney general. Three years ago, Frosh’s strong objections to a similar bill prompted him to utilize parliamentary maneuvers to block it on the Senate floor in the waning hours of the legislative session, after it had cleared both the House of Delegates and a Senate committee. Proponents of the measure opted not to push it the two most recent sessions, expecting a repeat of the same scenario with Frosh still in the Senate.

Political operative David Moon, writing in his blog, Maryland Juice, following the 2012 session, fumed: “[I] would be curious to see how many times in his multi-decade legislative career Mr. Frosh has blocked a local bill. I would also like to see what other issues he has deemed so important that they warrant thwarting democracy and upending the legislative process.” Moon, a Silver Spring Democrat elected to the House of Delegates last month, is now among the sponsors of the latest bill expanding the voting powers of the student school board member.

In an email sent to Dave Kunes, then president of the Montgomery County Young Democrats, following the 2012 session, Frosh said of his opposition to the bill: “SMOBs will be pressured by teachers, unions, parents, school administrators, county officials and lobbyists…I do not think it is reasonable to expect 17 year olds to find their way through the maze of pressure, policy and politics, however smart they may be.” Efforts to reach Frosh this week for elaboration on the issue were unsuccessful; an aide said he was out of town and unavailable for comment.

A leading backer of expanding student voting powers, Del. Anne Kaiser, D-Silver Spring, wryly observed that support or opposition to the proposal often depends on whether one has teenage children. “People with their own teenage kids can’t seem to picture them having this ability,” said Kaiser, recently appointed House majority leader. She characterized past student board members as “very smart and diligent about their work.”

County Councilmember Nancy Navarro, a former Board of Education member, also remains a strong supporter of the proposal. “I had the opportunity to serve with five different student board members. I was really impressed,” Navarro said during last week’s council debate. “At least [among] the ones I served with, I gotta say that some of them showed a lot more maturity and common sense than some of the adult board members at times.”

Skeptics, however, echo Frosh’s past qualms about the ability of the student member – usually elected as high school junior – to handle political pressures that could be brought to bear, as well as the student member’s ability to absorb complex issues in a one–year term. (The seven adult members of the school board are elected to four year terms.)

And then there is the makeup of the electorate that chooses the student member.

“My daughter, who is 12, voted for our student school board member,” District 2 Councilmember Craig Rice noted during last week’s discussion. “While I think that she’s astute and certainly knows about particular issues, is she concerned about the budget and the school calendar and what that means for us, [as well as] the longevity of our employees and things of that nature? Those are things that aren’t necessarily the focus of the children who are electing this person into the office.”

Along this line, Frosh in his 2012 email explaining his opposition, said it would be “undemocratic” to give student board member powers similar to seven adult board members who – while either district-based or at-large – are elected countywide. “The student member of the school board is selected by a pool of approximately 70,000 11 to 17 year olds who attend Montgomery County Schools.  In contrast, the…other members of the school board run at large countywide (from a population of about 1,000,000 people and approximately 620,000 registered voters),” he noted.   

If the bill expanding voting rights for the student member has enjoyed broad public support from other county legislators, sources said that a number of legislators have nonetheless privately harbored doubts similar to those voiced by Frosh.

In recent years, some legislators are said to have regarded the measure as a “free vote”; they could publicly back the bill to avoid offending its leading supporters, such as the county’s Young Democrats, while secure in the knowledge that Frosh would prevent it from becoming law. The changed dynamics of the county’s delegation mean some local representatives may face a choice in the coming session between altering their position or swallowing their skepticism, as the pressure for passage of the measure grows.

“The students have been clamoring for this,” Navarro said. “They feel like there’s a double standard.”

Editor’s Note: Tonight’s House delegation hearing on the pre-filed local bills takes place at 7 p.m. in the 3rd floor hearing room of the County Council Office Building, 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville. It will also be carried live via Channel 6 on Comcast and Channel 30 on Verizon FIOS. A list and description of the bills up for discussion is available at: http://www.montgomerycountydelegation.com/legislation.html