Law & Courts

Responsible Party

By Denise Kersten Wills — January 01, 2004 10 min read
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For Caitlin Heidemann, senior year is about spirit days, AP classes, and voting on teachers’ salaries.

Caitlin Heidemann is lying on her stomach on the floor of Deborah Henderson’s second-period honors comparative religion class at Old Mill High School in Millersville, Maryland. She props herself up on her elbows and swings her shoeless feet in the air, creating a blur of color with her socks, which are red at the toes and heels and striped in bright hues in between.

Wielding a fat piece of blue sidewalk chalk, the 17-year-old is serving as scribe for a small group creating a poster that depicts key elements of a liberal sect of Buddhism called Mahayana. The air is cooler on the floor where Caitlin lies, and that’s a good thing. It’s November, but the school was unseasonably muggy even before the first bell rang at 7:17 this morning. Now it’s about 80 degrees in the religion classroom, and there’s no air conditioning. Their project completed, Caitlin’s group loses focus. “I’m sweating like a pig over here,” complains one boy. “I’m going to wear a Speedo to school tomorrow.”

Toward the end of the 85-minute period, the voice of Arlen Liverman, principal of the 2,500-student school, filters through the public announcement system. He explains that the air conditioning was turned off before this unanticipated heat wave and can’t be brought back on. A collective groan rises from the class. The teachers have already switched off their computers to help keep temperatures down, and they aren’t any happier about the heat than the students are. “I’m asking you to do your very best to make it through the next couple of hours,” Liverman says calmly.

No one talks to Caitlin about fixing the air conditioning situation, although, as odd as it sounds, she’s probably in a position to do something about it. As the student representative on the Anne Arundel County Board of Education, a post created by the Maryland General Assembly in 1975 to ensure that a student perspective factors into decisions, Caitlin has one-eighth of the say over every issue that comes before the board—from construction contracts and physical education requirements to teachers’ salaries.

“The students don’t really understand what I do,” Caitlin explains later. “Some of them don’t even know they have a student board member.” Caitlin seems to relish attention, but her peers’ ambivalence is a blessing when it means that they don’t lobby her at school. Besides, the school board has bigger fish to fry than Old Mill’s cooling lapse. Nearby Arundel High School doesn’t have air conditioning at all, and a few weeks from now Caitlin will talk about today’s discomfort in support of a $20,000 plan to install a system there.

While hundreds of students sit on school boards in the United States, and a handful can vote on certain issues, “as far as we know, [Caitlin] is the only student board member in the country who has full voting rights,” says Paul Rudolph, president of the Anne Arundel board. When she attended a conference for Maryland school boards this past fall, other student board members told her they envied her power.

The county’s superintendent, Eric Smith, says at first he was skeptical about whether students were mature enough to have full voting rights, but he’s come around. “It brings a healthy dose of reality to the decisions we’re making,” he says. And Rudolph believes his county’s formula works: “There’s no lip service paid to someone who has full voting rights.”

Before Caitlin meets a new person, she sometimes warns that she looks much older than her age. In truth, 17 seems just right for the supercharged teen, with her streaky yellow-and-copper hair and bubbling-over laugh. There’s even something youthful about her serious side, when she feels most grown-up. Perhaps it’s the fact that her optimism hasn’t faded from encountering too many insurmountable obstacles.

As a school board representative with full voting rights, Caitlin has a say in all of her Maryland district’s matters.
—Photograph by David Kidd

In 6th grade, Caitlin ran for student council and won. But the position was just one more thing to be involved in. “I never said, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do with my life,’” she notes. It wasn’t until 11th grade that she started attending state and regional student council gatherings. In the meantime, she honed her leadership skills through sports—swimming, soccer, field hockey, and lacrosse.

While she didn’t concentrate on school policymaking until recently, she’s long been an organizer at home. Caitlin’s the youngest in her family, but “she’s always wanted to be the oldest, she’s always been struggling to catch up,” says her mother, Sheila Arrildt, an administrator for Continental Airlines. “Caitlin runs things; that’s just her nature.”

To win her position on the Anne Arundel board, Caitlin had to convince the Chesapeake Regional Association of Student Councils, a group of student government representatives, to elect her. The final stage of her campaign—following a lengthy nomination process that included essays, letters of recommendation, application forms, and an interview—was held on her home turf. Caitlin shook hands, gave out candy, and passed out tropical leis, using the slogan “Lay the responsibility on Caitlin.” The three candidates gave speeches about their education priorities and answered questions. Caitlin stressed increased academic rigor.

Rudolph says it takes school board members at least 20 hours per week to complete their duties, which include preparing for and participating in twice-monthly public meetings, frequent workshops to study specific issues, student expulsion appeals, and two weeklong, out-of- town conferences. In order to make time for her responsibilities, Caitlin opted to take only half the regular load of classes this year—an option available to seniors who have enough credits to graduate—so she’s free to leave school at 10:20 a.m. instead of 1:55 p.m. Still, she says, “sometimes I’m so exhausted from all of the work it takes for the board—all the reading, all the meetings— that Friday night rolls around, and my girls are like, ‘Caitlin, let’s go out.’ And I’m like, ‘Girls, I’ve got to sleep.’ And they’re like, ‘We’re getting coffee. Wake up.’”

Just yesterday, she spent nine hours in Annapolis sitting behind a long, curved dais before a crowd of about 60 at the board of education’s daylong monthly meeting. She’d traded in the usual high school uniform of tank top and low-slung jeans for a blue button-down shirt with diagonal white pinstripes and black pants.

“I like to see goals aimed at accelerating academic achievement,” she declared in response to a presentation by Robert Leib, the district’s director of business and government services, in support of waiving fees for AP tests so more students can take them. Caitlin read from the slim black laptop in front of her, using notes she had spent about five hours preparing the week before the meeting. “The increased diversity in my AP classes this year is a wonderful thing.”

Earlier this fall, Caitlin had asked her English teacher, Sean Swanson, for his input on waiving advanced placement fees. “I indicated that I had a student once that had written ‘I am stupid’ in German on every page of his AP booklet, and it cost his parents $75 or $80,” Swanson recalls. Caitlin brought the booklet to the board meeting and suggested that the district reimburse only students who score well.

Life as a student board member feels a bit schizophrenic to Caitlin. “I live a17-year-old life, and I live an adult life,” she says. “Sometimes we’ll be sitting in an executive session of the board, and we’ll be talking about personnel matters, and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I feel like I am 57 years old!’ I’m talking about this crazy stuff that no 17- year-old should know.”

The board provides her with a laptop, a phone line, a fax machine, a voice mail box, and a reserved parking space in front of the board of education building. Couriers bring confidential packages to her house— usually containing personnel documents or information the superintendent hasn’t yet released to the public—that she can’t even show her mother.

Caitlin works hard at being a normal 17-year old. “I can’t get lost in the adult world,” she says.
—Photograph by David Kidd

At other times, being on the board makes her feel young. “When we all go to social events, they drink alcoholic beverages and I’m like, ‘Can I have a Shirley Temple, please?’” Caitlin says, though she adds that they treat her as a peer. “When I talk, it’s silence.”

Her two lives sometimes create conflicts. During spirit week in late October, Caitlin stayed up until 4 a.m. with friends making togas, then slept through a meeting with the superintendent and some board members. “I felt absolutely awful,” she says. “But I can’t get lost in the adult world, because if I do, I’ll go crazy.”

As a student, it’s particularly difficult making decisions involving the working conditions of her teachers. In 2002, before Caitlin served on the board, the members promised employees a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment and incremental pay increases as part of its $643.8 million budget, a$40.5 million increase in spending. But then something happened that was beyond the board’s control: The county executive approved the entire budget except for employee raises.

“It was up to the board to decide whether to fund all the new programs or to give the teachers their raises,” says Caitlin’s predecessor, Ashley Nathanson, now a freshman at Harvard University, who recalls arriving at school that year to find teachers picketing. She also faced a backlash from fellow students when teachers decided to “work to rule,” meaning they wouldn’t stay after school so students could participate in activities. In the end, the board decided to fund incremental raises but not the cost-of-living adjustment, which would have cost $11 million. “Caitlin’s still dealing with that because teachers are still kind of angry about what happened last year,” Nathanson says.

While it’s tough, Caitlin says, her school board experience has already taught her that it’s important to set priorities when resources are limited. “I think teachers should make six-figure salaries,” she says. “But you’re looking at the funds that just aren’t there, and, you know, what goes? You can’t make it so the textbooks go. Students need textbooks, and students need desks. So you have to say, ‘Teachers, you’re not going to get that 3 percent cost-of-living increase that we promised you.’”

Caitlin’s teachers are careful not to lobby her during school, “but sometimes I have confrontations with teachers where I’m the board member, and that’s hard,” she says. After a long day of meetings and activities at a student council retreat this fall, she had to leave to compete in a field hockey game. Her team lost, and she came back exhausted and emotional. Late that evening, Kate Snyder, Old Mill’s student council adviser, drew her into a debate over the school’s lunch schedule, which allows students only25 minutes to eat—not enough time, Snyder and others argued.

Caitlin normally leaves school before lunch, but she ate at school one day to assess the situation. Students might have seemed a little rushed, she says, but the situation didn’t exactly shock her. “Maybe that’s cold-hearted,” she says, “but I’m focusing on accelerated academic achievement. You’re not at school to eat, you’re at school to learn.” The clash of opinions still upset her, especially since she feels indebted to Snyder, who first encouraged her to run for the school board position.

In spite of the moments of awkwardness that come with serving on the school board, she says that learning about the inequities in public education has made her keen to fix them. “A lot of times people ask me, ‘Why be the student member?’” she says. Caitlin’s answer? “Because I can. It’s such a unique opportunity because I can give back to my school system. Because sometimes people will think, ‘Oh, I don’t like how this is going.’ Well, get involved. Do something about it. Don’t just sit on your butt and say you don’t like it.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 02, 2004 edition of Teacher as Responsible Party


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