Young voices need to be heard

Saturday, July 8, 2006

Now is probably a good time to retell a story from another time and place where an experiment in local government proved to be helpful.

It could be so here.

A student was placed on the Board of Education in Anne Arundel County, Maryland back in the 1970s. It's recalled as one of those ideas that grew from free thinking in the 1960s.

If you think about it, the early '60s were more like the conservative 1950s, and the early '70s were still under the influence of the late '60s.

Anyway, they put a student on the school board, thinking it would bring fresh ideas to the panel and provide insight into student life that adults just don't understand.

It worked, for the most part, but one of the lessons from the experiment was totally unexpected.

There were adult school board members fighting to expand or preserve art classes. Music was seen by some as an important part of the curriculum. People who play a musical instrument stimulate different parts of their brain and somehow think better. The messages from artistic expression on canvas or with clay are important.

America wasn't so far from having won the space race by putting a man on the moon, and the Cold War was still a real factor. While U.S. troops had withdrawn from Vietnam, the Berlin Wall was still standing. And so math, science, history and civics were important classes to promote, according to other members of the school board.

Ask the kid on the board: What's the board's most important task?

Almost invariably, the answer was the same when the story was pursued year after year.

The answer always boiled down to "adopting a budget."

Setting a spending plan that fits the available revenue and working with the county commissioners who allocate the money to the various departments are so basic that the student on the board seemed to stand so much taller than the adults on the board.

This is not to discount the value of music, art, other so-called academic studies, or the personal stature of any school board member here or there. They do, after all, argue for a bigger slice of the money pie for their favorite subjects.

Having a student on the school board illustrated another fact of life. Because other board members had to run for office at the public polls, the student had to be 18 years of age; an adult. The student board member was elected by students, as I remember it.

That fact of life meant there was a new student on the board every year because after the senior graduated from high school he or she worked on the budget until it was passed on or about July 1 when the fiscal year started and then they left the panel so another could be elected in the fall.

Talk about term limitations.

But the fact of life illustrated by the age of the students on the board is that they were living at home with parents who had their own house rules and when the board met on a "school night," the student member wasn't supposed to stay up late.

Board meetings started at about 4 p.m., or not long after school let out. But when budget crunch time hit, or a big issue was to be debated, that county's board didn't bat an eye about ordering dinner to be delivered and would frequently work past 10 p.m. One budget meeting in 1978 went well beyond midnight, and poor decisions were made by tired officials.

Where was the student board member? At home in bed at his parents' house.

Last week, a chapter of Bedford County Juvenile Court came to an end in a case involving a middle school student who went too far on the Internet. The defendant has been described as bright, and clearly he understands computers which -- like so many other new things -- are assembled, started and run better by a 12-year-old.

Technical matters are just one part of the situation. There are social, cultural and other insights available from having a youth adviser.

Businesses want to know what their customers think about their services and products. And besides, Bedford County Schools Superintendent Ed Gray says he's in "the kid business."

Clint Confehr is a Times-Gazette staff writer.