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Student school board member faces Md. constitutional challenge

Having a high school student serve as a voting member on the county school board upon election by fellow pupils violates the Maryland Constitution, Howard County public school parents seeking a safe resumption of in-class learning amid the pandemic stated in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

The two parents, through counsel, cited the constitutional mandate that voters be at least 18 years old, a minimum age requirement not met by the students in sixth through 11th grade who elected the student member of the eight-person board.

The lawsuit followed the board’s recent rejection — by a 4-4 vote – of a plan to return students gradually to in-class learning. The decisive, gridlock-creating vote was cast by the student member, who opposed a return to the classroom, the lawsuit stated.

Many Maryland county school boards, like Howard’s, have a student member authorized by state law, elected by fellow pupils and possessing varying degrees of voting authority. Supporters of the “Student Member of the Board” movement view it as providing a practical lesson in civics and citizenship and encouraging youngsters to become voting members of the public.

But opponents, such as the Howard County parents, say student board members – who are either high school seniors or juniors — serve in defiance of the state constitution because they are not elected by qualified voters. Specifically Article 1, Section 1 of the Constitution provides that “every citizen of the United States, of the age of 18 years or upwards, who is a resident of the state … shall be entitled to vote in the ward or election district in which the citizen resides.”

“Howard County has violated this constitutional mandate and diluted the democratic power of voters of legal age by allowing for minors to participate in the election of the SMOB,” the parents’ attorney, Anthony M. Conti, wrote in the complaint filed in Howard County Circuit Court. “In addition, allowing a minor who is elected by minors to deprive and dilute adult citizens of their voting power and right violates fundamental rights of the citizens of Howard County, as guaranteed to them by the Maryland (Constitution’s) Declaration of Rights.”

The student member bypasses “the normal election process but is nonetheless granted voting power equal to all properly elected board members on substantial issues coming before the board, including most pressingly the return of Howard County children to school,” added Conti, of Conti Fenn LLC in Baltimore.

In discussing the lawsuit, Conti said Wednesday that he fully expects the constitutional challenge to SMOB to be ultimately decided by Maryland’s top court.

“We all know where this is headed,” Conti said, referring to the Court of Appeals. “My hope is that it’s on a fast train.”

The Maryland attorney general’s office, which would be called upon to defend the state law’s constitutionality, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Conti stated in the complaint that – but for the student’s unconstitutional presence on the panel — the school board would have voted 4-3 to permit students to return slowly to the classroom while respecting the risks and need for social distancing associated with COVID-19

He cited studies on the importance of in-class learning to the socialization of children as well as health advisories stating how a return to the classroom could be safely accomplished to prevent the spread of the virus.

“Howard County residents have elected seven members to serve as their representatives on their school board,” Conti wrote.

“These board members committed to establishing and following objective, science and health-based metrics to guide their decisions to return students to in-person instruction,” Conti added. “The residents deserve a decision from these seven representatives on an issue that is so fundamental that it defines the board’s very existence. Unfathomably, the decision is being blocked by a SMOB whose statutory existence violates Maryland’s Constitution.”

The case is docketed in circuit court as Traci Spiegel and Kimberly Ford v. Board of Education of Howard County.

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