For senior Ben Kolendo, the frustration started when members of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Alaska, school board voted to limit his ability to participate in meetings as a student representative, a position he’s held since his freshman year.
In a 5-2 vote Sept. 6, the board sidelined Kolendo, limiting his ability to join in its discussions outside of brief, invited comments at the beginning of meetings. Previously, Kolendo could participate freely from his seat at the dais alongside elected adult members and question witnesses about proposed policy, he said. Now, he mostly listens from a seat in the audience among members of the public.
To Kolendo—and to dozens of supporters who packed meetings holding yellow signs in support of his participation—the downgrade in his role felt like a slight for all students in the district.
“Our schools’ main job is to raise our students to be smart and educated participants in our democracy, and our school board did the opposite of that,” Kolendo said.
Board members who supported the move said it was necessary to make meetings more efficient, and that they wanted to hear from a wider variety of student voices. But Kolendo questioned the timing of the vote, which came months after he sharply questioned the makeup of a committee set to review contested books and participated in discussions about teachers’ contracts.
The shift says something deeper about the role of student board members, and the place of young people in the functioning of local school districts, where adults’ decisions stand to affect their day-to-day experiences. Like Kolendo, student school board members around the country are frustrated by what they view as superficial efforts to elevate student voice.
Whether or not they have an official vote—most student board members do not—they want the power to affect the bodies’ decisions and to partner with adults to find solutions.
Now, a new effort is underway to join the forces of the nation’s young board members, to equip them for the roles, and, in some places, to codify their place in local school governance.
Student school board members seek to strengthen roles
A group of former student board members, who are now college students, recently launched the National Student Board Member Association to train members and to advocate for state and local policies that strengthen their work.
Their effort comes at a high-stakes time for students as school boards make decisions about spending remaining federal COVID relief funds, helping students recover academically from the pandemic, and confronting a youth mental health crisis. But it can be difficult for student board members to play a role in that work if they aren’t familiar with education governance terms or the parliamentary procedure used to conduct meetings, said Zachary Patterson, who previously served as a student member on the San Diego school board and helped found NSBMA.
“I was super passionate and had issues I wanted to talk about, like mental health,” Patterson said of his first board meetings. “I quickly realized that I didn’t know how to file a motion, I didn’t know what a collective bargaining agreement was, I didn’t know what Title I funding was.”
I quickly realized that I didn’t know how to file a motion, I didn’t know what a collective bargaining agreement was, I didn’t know what Title I funding was.
Student members typically serve for a year, which means they are often just getting the hang of things when their terms expire, Patterson said. And skepticism from elected adult peers, especially during a divisive moment in local politics, can make it difficult for students to contribute.
The NSBMA grew out of such concerns. Patterson and other California student board members began organizing online in 2020 , hosting webinars to offer each other crash courses in the district budgeting process, federal policy, and state law. Seeing an appetite for a national effort, those students collaborated with the National Center on Education and the Economy, a research and advocacy organization, which agreed to incubate the group until it could launch as an independent non-profit organization.
“I think we should view young people as our allies,” said Vicki Phillips, the CEO of NCEE and a former superintendent. “They really believe in intergenerational collaboration. That’s not just a catchphrase for them.”
The NSBMA, which currently serves 500 student members in 42 states, held its first virtual conference in August to help incoming members train and form networks of support. The organization also aims to address the dearth of research on student board members and to advocate for state laws to create the positions in more districts and to expand their authority.
The budding organization’s efforts grow out of a successful push by student board members and youth advocates around the country for laws that count mental health days as excused school absences. Twelve states now have such laws, and several of them enacted them after local student board members passed resolutions in support.
Moving beyond ‘tokenization’
Students who serve on school boards don’t want to be overly argumentative thorns in adults’ sides, but they also don’t want to be seen as superficial symbols, said Jennifer Tran, who helped found NSBMA.
Tran recalled a time during her service as a student member of the Garden Grove, Calif., school board during the 2021-22 school year, a position she helped create through student petitions. At one meeting, Tran said, board members returned from a closed session that she was not in and voted to lift school mask requirements without her input.
Students feel “tokenized for their voice when they are used as this flashy item and not taken seriously,” Tran said, “especially in places where they don’t actually hold any power through a vote that counts.”
Like Kolendo, Tran and Patterson could cast non-binding preferential votes as student members, which allowed them to record their positions on board decisions without affecting the outcome.
They really believe in intergenerational collaboration. That’s not just a catchphrase for them.
Such policies vary by state. At least 31 states allow local boards to have student members, who are either selected by adult trustees or elected by their peers, according to the National School Boards Association. Seven states allow preferential voting, the NSBMA founders said, while most only allow students to engage in board discussions.
Just one state, Maryland, allows student board members in some districts to cast binding votes on most major decisions alongside adults. (The state’s legislature has approved the voting powers of student board members in eight of the state’s 24 districts through individual pieces of legislation, the earliest of which passed in 1974.)
While Maryland youth advocates, and some school administrators, say teens add an important voice to such discussions, their authority has not gone unchallenged. In 2021, state Delegate Reid Novotny, a Republican, filed a bill to prohibit student board members from casting decisive votes on district issues.
That bill, which failed to pass the legislature, came after a Howard County student member voted “no” on a plan to reopen schools in late 2020, leaving the school board deadlocked 4-4 on whether to end remote learning. Howard County parents sued in response, challenging the constitutionality of the student’s vote, which the state’s supreme court later upheld.
Julie Henn, a member of the Baltimore County school board, said in a February Facebook post that she feared giving student members an official vote would saddle them with unnecessary pressure from adults like teachers and administrators who have authority over things like their grades, school discipline, and college recommendations. State lawmakers later passed a bill that expanded the powers of Baltimore County’s student board member, allowing them to cast votes on the district’s budget.
“No matter how capable the student may be, the pressures when voting on a $2 billion budget are no joke,” Henn wrote.
Student school board members push for state policies
Whether or not student members have an official vote, they have important contributions to offer to adult decisionmakers, said Tran. They’ve experienced things adult members are often unfamiliar with, like the changing role of technology, active-shooter drills, and the rocky transition to remote learning. Tran helped author a 2022 state bill, later filed by a state lawmaker, that would have allowed California districts to expand student board members full voting rights. It ultimately did not win consideration from the full legislature.
Student board members around the country have also championed policy changes that would give them preferential votes where they have none or expand their rights to make and second motions during meetings.
In Alaska, Kolendo has proposed requiring school systems with more than 5,000 students to provide student board members with the same freedoms to participate in meetings that he had before his school board voted to diminish his role. His resolution won support from the the Alaska Association of Student Governments on Oct. 15, and it may be considered by the state senate next year.
Kolendo said he took his responsibilities seriously, questioning items like contracts with transportation companies. He wants his school board, and the students it serves, to benefit from similar input in the future.
“The goal isn’t just to get me back on the dais,” he said. “The goal is so that the next member, and the one after that, have the title, the position, and the respect.”