Bill Increasing Power of Student School Board Member Seems Poised for Passage

Bill Increasing Power of Student School Board Member Seems Poised for Passage

Montgomery County's state Senate delegation supports the measure

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Student School Board Member Dahlia Huh reads to third graders in April.

via @DahliaHuh on Twitter

A long-debated, sometimes controversial measure to enhance the voting power of the student member of the Montgomery County Board of Education finally appears headed for enactment this year, as the 2015 session of the Maryland General Assembly looks to wrap up most of its work early next week.

The county’s Senate delegation gave its endorsement to the so-called SMOB­­—student member of the board— bill Friday, following passage of the measure last month in the House of Delegates by a 125-10 margin. All 24 members of the Montgomery County House delegation voted for the legislation.

While the bill must still clear the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee as well as the full Senate in the coming week, this now seems likely—since the legislation would apply only to Montgomery County and has gained the backing of the county’s senators.

“I think it’s a bill whose time has come,” said Sen. Nancy King, D-Montgomery Village, who chairs the county Senate delegation. “We’ve debated it for years and years.” With two members of the delegation absent, the county’s remaining six senators gave unanimous approval to moving ahead with the “local” bill during Friday’s meeting.

A version of the legislation to give increased power to the student member of the county school board first surfaced nearly a decade ago, and almost cleared the legislature in 2012. But it was blocked in the closing hours of the session that year due to strong objections from then-Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Chevy Chase, now the state’s attorney general. With Frosh’s departure from the General Assembly this January, proponents renewed their efforts on behalf of the bill.

There has been a student member of the county school board since the late 1970s, elected by middle and high school students throughout the county and who serves for a year alongside seven adult board members. A 1989 law gave the student member limited voting rights, and the pending legislation would expand those rights to include issues such as capital and operating budgets, collective bargaining, changes in school population boundaries and school closings. At least one other major jurisdiction in the state, Anne Arundel County, now accords similar powers to the student school board member.

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.

The student member already has the power to vote on the hiring of a county school superintendent, and the pending legislation would have no impact on this issue. Nonetheless, sources said the intense jockeying among board members earlier this year over whether to extend the contract of former Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr renewed private concerns among some legislators—at least temporarily—about increasing the decision-making pressures placed on a board member who may be just 17 or 18 years old.

“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,” Frosh declared, following the 2012 legislative debate.

By all indications, the now-attorney general has not sought to inject himself in this year’s debate over the student member bill, and no current legislator appears moving to block it— as defenders of the legislation have cited the diligence of recent student members of the board. “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,” District 4 County Councilmember Nancy Navarro, a former school board member, observed late last year.

“Looking at the student board member who is there this year, she works so hard and does all the homework,” King added Monday— referring to Clarksburg High School senior Dahlia Huh, who has appeared during several legislative hearings on behalf of the SMOB bill.

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