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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Frederick County SMOB

This is a great article from the Gazette about Frederick County SMOB Margo Dawes' push for voting rights. I'm also quoted in the article!

Frederick County's student school board member pushes for voting rights
by Margarita Raycheva

While her fellow student board members in Prince George's, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties are voting on major education issues and policies, Margo Dawes has little power to actively influence school board decisions in Frederick County.

As the student member of the county's Board of Education, the 17-year-old Frederick High School senior is free to attend meetings, speak up, take sides on issues and voice her opinion along with the seven adult members of the board. But she has no right to vote, as the others do.

That is why Dawes, who represents the interests of 42,000 Frederick County students, was set to ask the board on Wednesday for partial voting rights for student members.

"I am doing this for students who cannot speak on the Board of Education," Dawes said.

The meeting occurred after The Gazette's press time on Wednesday. Check for updates.

Partial voting rights would mean that student members would be only able to vote on policy changes and issues that affect students, and would not vote on budgets, personnel or boundary changes.

"We realize that this responsibility doesn't come lightly. But if they give us the chance they will not be disappointed," said Dawes, who will not get to benefit from the change if the board approves her idea, only future student members would.

According to Jamie Cannon, the school board's legal counsel, if school board members decide to give students a more active role on the board, they would have to include that position in their legislative package and bring it to the Frederick County delegation to the Maryland General Assembly, which could bring it for a vote in Annapolis.

The school board was scheduled to introduce their package to the delegation on Wednesday, Cannon said.

Dawes' idea for student voting rights is not unique in Maryland. It is modeled after the practice in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and at the Maryland State Board of Education, all of which give partial voting rights to their student members. Anne Arundel County is the only county in the entire state which gives full voting rights to student members on the school board. This year, students in Montgomery County are fighting to get a full vote, which would allow them to vote on budget issues.

"We want to increase our influence on the education system," said Alan Xie, the student board member on the Montgomery County school board, who praised Dawes' efforts in Frederick County.

"Students are the largest stakeholder in the school system," he said. "And we really feel that there is a need for a student vote on the budget."

In Frederick County, students have never had any voting rights, even though they've had a representative on the board since 1987. And this is not the first time that students have pushed for the right to vote.

"It has been an annual issue," said school board member Katie Groth, who has served on the board since 2004 and who has concerns about changing the current model.

One big factor for Groth is that students have to attend classes and cannot attend all board meetings, which could affect their ability to make decisions that affect the school system.

"Their No. 1 job is being a student," said Groth, noting that she would hate to see students missing classes just to attend board meetings.

Student board members only serve on the board for one year, when they are juniors or seniors, and that just doesn't give them enough time to learn how the school system works, Groth said.

Groth doesn't definitively oppose the idea of giving students a partial voting right. She feels that if the board decides to allow it, board members must be very careful in defining what issues students can vote on and what issues are off limits.

Other board members are worried that the public could pressure student members. Others have questioned who would hold students accountable if they do not follow the responsibilities of their job.

But Dawes believes she can alleviate many these concerns with the information she has collected on the practice in other counties. For instance, currently the Frederick County school board has no power to remove a non-voting student member. If the student member had voting rights and was not meeting the demands of their position, state law allows the board to petition the state to have that student removed from the job, Dawes said.

In Frederick County student board members are elected by the General Assembly of the Frederick County Association of Student Councils, which includes more than 110 students from nearly every middle and high school in the county. Students first appear in front of a panel, which selects the five top candidates to stand for election in April. The elected student representative assumes the position on July 1 and serves one year.

If the board doesn't think that process is rigorous enough for a student member who has voting rights, members could use the Maryland State Board of Education's practice, which selects two finalists in the student board member process and allows the Maryland governor to make the final student member selection, she said.

Though she doesn't know if the board will accept her proposal, Dawes hopes that she can get more school board members to see the value in giving students more power to influence the decisions that affect them directly.

"Right now I can talk all I want and people will listen, but it doesn't mean anything," said Dawes, who often takes opinion votes on the board. Opinion votes go on record, but they have no effect on the school board's decisions.

"I just feel like a very well accepted mouthpiece for students," she said.

Not all the current school board members in Frederick County oppose the idea of giving students a partial voting right. Board member April Miller, who was elected in November, said she would not be in favor of letting students vote on budget and personnel issues, but could be comfortable allowing them to vote on other issues, especially when they affect students directly.

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