Bill to curtail Maryland student school board members’ voting power dies in House committee

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Jacob Calvin Meyer, The Baltimore Sun
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A bill in the General Assembly aimed at curtailing the voting power of student school board members in Maryland died in committee last week.

The legislation, filed by Del. Reid Novotny in January, received an “unfavorable” report from the House of Delegates Ways and Means committee on Feb. 12, killing the bill with a 14-7 vote. The bill would have stripped student school board members in the state of their vote if it were a “deciding vote” on a motion.

“It was unfortunate that the [bill] failed on a party-line vote,” Novotny wrote in an email Thursday afternoon. “I will always believe that gridlock is best for D.C. and not our school boards.”

Novotny, a newly appointed Republican who represents parts of Howard and Carroll counties in District 9A, said in mid-January that his legislation would end the “gridlock” happening with the Howard County Board of Education.

The school board, which governs the 77-school system that has been fully virtual since last April after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered buildings in March, had tied on multiple motions in recent months regarding reopening plans and a possible hybrid model. In some of those motions, if the student member’s vote were removed, the motion would have passed.

The board has eight members — seven elected by Howard County voters and one student member elected by county middle and high school students. Howard High School senior Zach Koung is the board’s student member this academic year.

The bill was Novotny’s first after being appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan to fill former Del. Warren Miller’s seat. Miller retired Dec. 30, and Novotny was selected by the Republican central committees of Howard and Carroll counties to fill the vacancy.

“My whole intent was to ensure the elected members by the voting populace of Howard County were able to do their job, which obviously has been sort of at a stalemate because of the number eight, an even number,” said Novotny, a Glenelg resident, in January.

While his bill didn’t make it out of committee, Novotny said he plans to refile the legislation to change the structure of the seven county school boards that do have student members who can vote. The bill would force those school boards — including Howard, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Baltimore City and Harford — to have an odd number of voting members, “while leaving it up to the county to decide [whether] to add an additional student member, the superintendent or a representative teacher, for example,” he said.

Seventeen of the 25 Maryland school boards don’t allow students to vote. However, most school boards in the Baltimore region, including the state board, have one student member who can vote on most topics. The student — a junior or senior — is appointed by middle and high school students and serves a one-year term. In Howard County, the student member can vote on most topics except those involving redistricting, personnel, legal issues, the budget and “other restricted matters,” according to the school system’s website.

A week after Novotny filed the legislation, Howard’s school board switched gears. The board, which had previously voted to extend virtual learning from Feb. 1 to April 12, approved the school system’s hybrid model to begin rolling out March 1 during a meeting in late January.

About 4,000 students, and the staff to support them, will be returning March 1, while about half the system’s 57,000 students will return to classrooms for the hybrid model by mid-April.

The change by the board was spurred by Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement that he would pursue consequences for school systems that didn’t get their students back in classrooms in March, as well as improving coronavirus numbers in the county and pro-reopening guidance and recommendations by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The change in direction by the board followed several months of debate, including multiple tied votes, about how and when to get students back in classrooms. Those tied votes were the ones that drew the ire of some in the community about the board’s voting system and the student member’s right to vote. The criticisms caused Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano to speak out against the online “bullying” of Koung.

Then, in December, two Howard County parents with children in the school system filed a lawsuit to strip the student school board member’s right to vote.

The lawsuit, filed in Howard County Circuit Court by Traci Spiegel and Kimberly Ford, argues that giving a high school student the right to vote on school board decisions violates Maryland’s constitution because the student is not 18 years old and is not eligible to vote in elections or to hold an elected office.

Last week, more than 100 former student school board members in Maryland weighed in on the lawsuit, saying it is an “egregious attack” on student representation. The group of 128 former student board members, with the aid of the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Venable LLP, filed an amicus brief, arguing that the lawsuit is invalid and the parents’ motion for summary judgment, which would lead to a court decision without a trial, should be denied.