- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008

Sixteen-year-old Collin Wojciechowski knows he will have to make sacrifices to serve on the Anne Arundel County Board of Education during his senior year but says he is glad to continue a 30-year tradition by filling the one seat open to a senior each year.

Anne Arundel is one of a few school districts nationwide that have a student with full voting privileges serving on the school board, though some boards have students in an advisory role. Like the other seven board members, the student representative is responsible for the district’s $1 billion capital and operating budget.

“I think Anne Arundel County presents such a unique opportunity for students to have their voice heard,” says Collin, who is considering majoring in political science in college. “We need to stress that the students are the ones who are the products of this system.”

Collin, a student at Chesapeake High School in Pasadena, likely will be putting in 15 to 30 hours a week attending board meetings, hearings and other meetings; doing research; going to ribbon cuttings; visiting schools; and communicating with constituents. He will have to juggle his volunteer work on the board with classes, student government and sports, including varsity indoor and outdoor track and varsity cross country.

Collin is junior class president, a role that he says teaches communication, leadership and teamwork skills he can transfer to his board position.

“The Board of Education is a great opportunity to have a window into how the political system works,” he says.

The board’s adult members serve overlapping terms of five years, limited to two consecutive terms, and are appointed by the governor. The student member serves a one-year term and is elected by student government representatives as their nominee to the governor.

The board will add a ninth member in July, as decided by the state, to represent a legislative district that has a small section in the county but is primarily in Prince George’s County.

Collin is filling the seat currently held by Sage Snider, an 18-year-old senior at Severna Park High School in Severna Park.

“I learned what it’s like to be a politician. Just because you have the title doesn’t mean you can get things done,” says Sage, who plays the violin, belongs to the Thespian Society and serves as president of her school’s Model United Nations. “You just can’t snap your fingers to make change.”

Making a change to programs or policies requires several steps, such as forming a committee to study the implications of the change or holding a public hearing, she says.

For instance, she went before the Maryland General Assembly last month to request that the student member receive the same pay as adult members. Beginning on July 1, adult board members will be paid $6,000 annually and the board president $8,000; the student member will receive a $3,600 stipend. Previously, all board members, including the student, received the stipend of $3,600 a year and the president a $6,000 stipend.

“The board supports this and understands the student board member is an equal,” Sage says.

Board President Tricia Johnson, a Davidsonville resident, agrees.

“It’s just the same as any other opinion. We don’t sort out the fact it is a student,” Ms. Johnson says.

Having a student representative keeps the board “in touch with reality,” says board Vice President Enrique M. Melendez, an Arnold resident. “A student board member is more in touch with students. They’ll help give us that perspective.”

Student board members who may not understand an issue are encouraged to ask board members, who, in turn, will tell them the facts while presenting both sides, Mr. Melendez says.

“They should seek out guidance and learn about the issues,” he says. “We’re not going to tell them to vote this way or that way.”

The student member offers one of eight perspectives, as do the lawyers, businesspeople and educators who also are serving on the board, says Patricia Nalley, a board member living in Annapolis who is a retired educator of 42 years.

“We all listen to each other and decide our opinions. We are all up there, and we’re all listening to that information,” Mrs. Nalley says.

Collin says a specific type of student seeks the board of education seat — students who are independent, able to make decisions and are “not intimidated by people who think they can sway them because of their age.”

As Sage says, “As long as the students do their homework and get educated on the issues, the board members will respect them. They’re listened to as much as any individual board member.”

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