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Hearing considers challenge to Howard County Board of Education student members' voting rights

Complaint filed after 'no' vote to reopen schools
Posted at 9:40 AM, Mar 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-15 17:41:11-04

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. — UPDATE: Login details to view March 16th hearing on Zoom listed below article.

A fight over student voting rights on the Howard County Board of Education heads to court.

Following a virtual hearing Tuesday morning, a judge will decide whether students can continue to have both a voice and a vote on matters affecting their education.

Howard County school board meetings have gone digital during the pandemic. On screen, viewers will find seven adult members elected by voters and one youth member elected by students.

Howard County parents Traci Spiegel and Kim Ford filed a lawsuit to not only put an end to the gridlock, but the binding vote of the student member who sits on the board of education.

“When we started watching the Board of Education meetings, every single vote about reopening plans ended in gridlock, 4-4 gridlock. And, we noticed that a student was part of that gridlock, a minor," Spiegel said.

“Howard County is one of the few that allows their student member to have a binding vote, we don't believe a minor should have a vote on major issues," Spiegel added.

The plaintiffs' attorney Tony Conti said "right now, when a student member has a vote, a super majority is required to pass anything. That means the only way to pass any sort of motion at the school board level is by a 5-3 vote"

In the event of a 4-4 tie, a motion dies, as in last December's vote to reopen schools by February. Three members along with the student member voted, “no.”

Decisions, which fellow plaintiff Kim Ford believes should be left to adults.

“A student in my house has input into our major decisions, let's use meals as an example, they can have input into what we're going to eat, but we're not eating pizza every night for dinner. We're also going to have a vegetable and some healthy stuff. A student shouldn't have input, should have input, but not a vote, on what 58,000 students eat for lunch every day,” Ford said.

Because there’s an even number of eight school board members, the attorney representing the two parents hopes to put an end to stalemates by taking away the binding vote of student board members.

“If we eliminate the student member vote, then we get back to regular majority rule, 4-3. We’ll have a seven-member board, and as the statutes dictate, you only need four votes when the student member is disqualified," Conti said.

Spiegel and Ford's lawsuit makes the argument the student member of the board is chosen by other students who aren't old enough vote in official state elections. Therefore, they believe student members should not have the same voting rights as elected members of the board.

Lawyers for the Howard County school board would not comment on the pending litigation. However, court documents state their position.

They argue the Maryland constitution doesn't require school board positions to be filled through a formal election by registered voters since the general assembly created the student board seat as a non-elected position.

Emily Wilson is an attorney representing the interests of amici curiae, 128 former Maryland student board members.

“If the plaintiff's theory here is to be believed, and if the voting rights of the Howard County member are ruled to be unconstitutional, that will disrupt a legal framework by which voting rights have existed for student members in the state of Maryland for over 50 years," Wilson said.

The amici curiae, along with the school board itself are asking the court to dismiss this case.

“This is a really rich tradition in Maryland. It's something that we as Maryland residents should all be very proud of that we value student voice and student input in education policy making and we should absolutely be seeking to protect that at all costs," Wilson said.

As a former Howard County student member of the board, Tomi Williams lent his name to this case in support of past, present, and future students who serve.

“There is no Howard County Board of Education if it's not for the students, the students who attend and the students for whom all of these structures are supposed to be in place," Williams said.

The Howard County school board has had a student member with voting rights since 2007.

“There is a list of things that they can and cannot vote on, school reopening is not one of them because we've never been in this situation before, but budget and personnel issues are. I think that budget and personnel issues are a huge impact to reopening,” Ford said.

“The reason that we're here is the students and sometimes that voice can get lost. I think it was an important opportunity to be able to bring that, not just with a voice but also with an official vote that actually, gave real meaning and sway to the opinions of students,” Williams said.

Some Howard County public school students started returning to the classroom two weeks ago. Depending upon what grade they're in, most students won't start going back to school until sometime between the end of march and mid-April.

The Spiegel, Ford v. Howard County Board of Education hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, March 16 at 8:30 am, and it's open to the public via Zoom.

To join by video:
Phone Number: 833 568 8864
Meeting ID: 161 828 8534
Passcode: 25 804 505

To join by phone/audio only:
Phone number: 833 568 8864
Meeting ID: 161 828 8534
Passcode: 25 804 505

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