MANCHESTER, NH – The Board of School Committee on Dec. 10 took a step forward toward inclusion of student voices as part of their regular board meetings.
Based on a report submitted by the Special Committee on Student Voice, the board, after a lengthy and circular discussion, voted to accept the committee’s recommendation on a process for electing student representatives from the four city high schools as follows:
- Students will hold “anonymous” elections by submitting essays that the student body will be able to read and vote on based on content rather than the identity of the student – this, to eliminate a “popularity contest” for candidates.
- Two students from each school will be selected, one as a primary representative and one as an alternate member, to serve from June 1 to May 31.
- Elections will be open to all students in grades 9-12 who are not ineligible or barred from participating in extracurriculars and who have a GPA of 2.0. Nominations will be open to students with lower GPAs with approval of a principal or other school advisor.
- A mid-term vacancy can be filled by the principal from the original pool of nominees if available; otherwise, the principal will select a student.
- Going forward, student communication will be included on the School Board agenda after public comment, and two schools will be included on each alternating agenda.
Board member Ross Terrio, who served as committee chair, had initially been against the anonymous voting process, but said he had reconsidered it and reversed himself on that point, deciding to support what the students on the ad hoc committee overwhelmingly wanted.
Committee members Art Beaudry, Jimmy Lehoux, Rich Girard, and Lisa Freeman voted against approving the committee’s recommendation.
Girard objected to the anonymous clause, proposing that the measure was pushed by “a particular group of people who have been advocating for this believe they’re not popular enough in schools to get elected, and they have a particular point of view on thing they think will get lost.”
Girard was referring to a group of students who belong to YOU – Youth Organizers United – a program of Granite State Organizing Project. The students, are active in working toward overcoming ethnic and racial disparities evident in their schools and the community. Members of YOU have been advocating for months for the board to initiate a student liaison position.
“If we’re somehow going to say to students that somehow elections that are centered on essays are the way to go to make sure more qualified or more sincere or more ‘fill in the blank’ candidates aren’t overlooked in a so-called popularity contest, then, you know, I really think we’re not preparing students for the realities of life,” Girard said. “We’re all sitting here as elected officials, we’ve all believed we are the better candidate, sometime the voters have agreed with us, other times they have not. But the idea that somehow we’re going to get the better perspective from students escapes me.”
Girard said he favored having the position be filled by a school-elected member of student government.
Board member Lisa Freeman agreed with Girard, that the student representative should be an existing member of the student council.
Committeeman John Avard said he didn’t object to the student’s desire to have an anonymous election, but asked for clarification from Terrio as to the parameters of their participation.
Terrio said students would have the opportunity to make short presentations of issues or concerns that the board could respond to at the top of every meeting.
Board member Jimmy Lehoux introduced the idea of a compromise – having the anonymous essays be part of an elimination process, and then having a general election to decide who would be the student rep.
Committee member Mary Georges responded to the point made by Terrio – that the students on the ad hoc committee wanted to avoid creating a popularity contest, which is how student government elections are generally perceived by students. She said being an elected official means putting one’s self out there to voters, and that students who wish to participate in student advocacy need the discipline required for other extracurriculars that prepare them for life after high school, which ultimately does come down to a person’s popularity with voters.
She said she didn’t care what kind of election the board ultimately agree upon, but wanted to stress her opinion on how the position should be a learning ground for students who in the future may want to become school board members.
“This is a discipline, like those who are playing basketball or football, because they want to go to college [where] they can play, too. If you want to be a student council [member], you want to be somebody at the school to be an advocate because tomorrow you can be [on] the school board here, too. That’s what they want to teach them, to be representatives here to sit and to learn,” Georges said.
“If now you cannot start that at school with the audience, to be really popular and know how to express yourself and talk to others, how tomorrow can you be on the school board? Because to be elected [to the school board] I go on [the public TV show] I need to present myself, ‘I’m Mary Georges, I want to be this, vote for me,’ and I’m going to go in the morning walking on the streets giving people [my information,” Georges said, of the process city candidates go through to create campaign video.
“This is a discipline … I want to know why you want to be in student council, why do you want to be an advocate? If you don’t want to be popular, I don’t think so. Maybe I’m not popular but I try to do my best … how can we teach them how a student uses this time to learn how you can be activists and speak to others? This is the time, not to be ashamed or not popular. Get up, be in the hallways, speak to everyone inside the school. How you going to become a member of school council but you don’t know how to speak with other students?” Georges said.
Lehoux’s motion failed, with only Freeman, Girard, Lehoux, Beaudry and Avard voting in favor.
After nearly an hour of deliberation and prior to the final vote to approve the committee’s recommendations, Terrio pointed out that once the positions are filled the board can adjust itself if it’s not working out.
“It’s a student rep. The kids will come in here for 15-20 minutes and talk about their schools. This is not rocket science or brain surgery. If it doesn’t work for the first year we can always change it. If we have a bad result, if we don’t like the kids who come, or for whatever reason they don’t participate, we give it a try and then next year we say, no, it didn’t work, let’s just go to an open election.”
Ashley Woods, a student from Memorial High School, spoke during public comment to thank the board for giving students a chance to weigh in on the process as part of the ad hoc committee and “work together to construct ideas.” She told the board that Memorial students were in “unanimous agreement” with the idea of anonymous elections.
“Our voices are ready to be heard. Please listen,” Woods said.