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Legislation would allow student member of BCPS Board to vote on budget

Christian Thomas sworn in as Baltimore County School Board student member, July 1, 2021. Credit: BCPS

The student member of Baltimore County’s school board can vote on a number of things from curricula to contracts, but not the system’s multi-billion-dollar annual budget.

Now, a bill in the General Assembly would change that.

Opponents say the student member is too inexperienced to vote on the budget, and they question the political motivation behind the legislation.

School board members are divided between those more likely to support Superintendent Darryl Williams’ administration and those who are not.

Board member Lily Rowe said giving the student member the vote on budgets would be a gift for the administration. Currently, school superintendent Darryl Williams’ budget can be changed with six votes since only 11 of the 12 board members can vote on it. If the student member could vote it would take seven to make a majority.

“On a lot of issues there’s really only five of us and occasionally we can get six,” Rowe said. “But we can almost never get seven on amending the budget.”

Democratic Del. Eric Ebersole, whose district includes parts of southwestern Baltimore County as well as a portion of Howard County, said that is not the intent of his legislation. He said student members should not be a token, that they work hard and have proven themselves.

“They have to overcome a bias to begin with because they’re young to establish their credibility,” Ebersole said.

At a recent hearing on Ebersole’s legislation by Baltimore County’s House Delegation, Del. Kathy Szeliga, a Republican whose district straddles the Baltimore-Harford County line, mixed it up with student member Christian Thomas.

“What is the school board budget,” she asked.

“Are you referring to the operating budget or the capital budget,” Thomas wondered.

“The total. Either. Both,” Szeliga shot back.

Thomas correctly told Szeliga the total of the current year’s operating budget, $2.312 billion.

Once he answered that question she moved on, asking the Eastern Technical High School senior if he helps his parents manage their household budget.

Szeliga said, “I’m wondering what kind of experience you have managing money of any number, especially something that’s, you know, $2 billion plus dollars.”

Thomas said he does help with the family budget and questioned Szeliga as to whether she would ask any other board member these types of questions.

“I think that’s kind of unfair because there are 11 other board members who are not required to have any financial background to vote on the budget,” Thomas said. “They’re not required to have a master’s degree in financial literacy. They’re not required to have any background in budgetary matters to be elected into their role.

“I would hope that these questions are in good faith and not trying to target me as an individual student,” Thomas said.

“I would never target you,” Szeliga replied. She said her questions are about the experience the student member has with budgets.

“Does someone who is a teenager have the ability and the experience, the life experience, of managing this amount of money?”

Ebersole said Szeliga’s questions were condescending.

“These questions actually are a bit of a cross examination based on age,” Ebersole said.

According to the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, all but one of Maryland’s 24 local school boards has at least one student representative. While most limit what the student can vote on, Anne Arundel’s student member has full voting rights.

In Howard County, two parents sued to try to block the student board member from voting on anything. They lost but are appealing.

Opponents of expanding the Baltimore County student member’s voting authority pointed out they only get one-year terms, not long enough to get a firm grasp on the budget process.

School board member Rowe, who said she is speaking for herself and not for the board, said it’s also a problem giving student members voting authority over the school budget because they don’t pay property taxes.

“In the history of our country, voting rights are very closely tied to taxation,” Rowe said. “And the students that the student member represents are not property taxpayers."

The school board can’t raise taxes. That is done by the county executive and county council.

Also, Thomas said property taxpayers are represented by the other members of the board, as well as the county council and county executive, who eventually approve the school budget.

Hereford High School Junior Samantha Warfel said the student member brings classroom experience to the table.

“The adult board members are not students,” Warfel said. “They’re not sitting in school buildings every day and seeing firsthand where resources could be better allocated.”

The legislation is supported by the school board’s best known former student member, County Executive Johnny Olszewski. He served on the board from 1999-2000. His education liaison, Jennifer Lynch, read a letter of support from him to the school board.

“I believe that effective education systems understand education is not something to be done to students, but in thoughtful collaboration with students,” Lynch read.

Legislation that would have expanded the student member’s voting authority passed the House a couple of years ago but died in the Senate.

The Maryland House Ways and Means Committee holds a hearing on Ebersole’s legislation Thursday.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2