A new proposal from the Matanuska-Susitna school board would significantly weaken the role of the board’s student representative. The proposed changes are a big departure from how most other student representatives across the state are included in their local school boards.
The proposal was developed after a contentious school board meeting in May, when the board discussed a citizen’s library advisory committee to review books in Mat-Su schools for pornographic content. Student representative Ben Kolendo asked several pointed questions about the selection process for members of the committee and about the ongoing contract negotiations with the teachers union.
Two months later, a three-member board policy committee proposed weakening the student member’s role.
The new policy would remove the ability for the student to cast a preferential vote and it would remove the title of “board member” from the student. It would also only allow the student to speak once at the beginning of the meeting, or if requested by the board chair.
School board member Jacob Butcher is on the policy committee that proposed the changes during a board retreat on Aug. 2. Butcher declined to speak with Alaska Public Media, and no other school board members responded to requests for comment, but Butcher said at a meeting on Aug. 16 that the student representative was intended as a privilege for the student body.
“Like a lot of other good faith efforts this position is subject to pressures from outside, which I felt like from my remote position is what happened,” Butcher said. “Unfortunately that’s kind of forced the body to do a restructure in order to effectively and efficiently carry out our business and to maintain the authority, and not be undermining the role of the elected officials on this board.”
The school board released a statement on Aug. 21 that said the changes are intended to allow the student member to leave the meeting early, and to more closely align with Mat-Su Borough code.
“The changes the Board is considering are not designed to ‘silence’ student voices. Rather, the changes being considered are primarily about defining the mechanics and venue with which the Board solicits input from students,” the school board statement said.
Ben Kolendo doesn’t think that’s accurate.
Kolendo is a senior at Career Tech High School in Wasilla, and the only student advisory board representative ever to be elected to the position twice. He said he plays an important role on the board. Kolendo feels that he’s being retaliated against for questioning board members
“I represent the entire student body,” Kolendo said in an interview. “I always push to bring student voice to questions, or if what they’re doing is actually beneficial to students.”
The representative is elected by about 30 other students in the Mat-Su Borough School District who participate in Student Advisory Board.
The current policy says that the “Student Board members shall have the right to attend public meetings of the board, be recognized at meetings, participate in questioning witnesses and discussing issues and shall receive all materials presented to board members except those related to executive sessions.”
Kolendo doesn’t feel that his comments at the May meeting were out of line.
“I didn’t say anything other than I want us to question why we’re making this decision,” Kolendo said. “Is it because we think it’s best for students, or because we think it’s best for our political opinions or for our political stance?”
All of the five largest school districts in the state — and the state school board — have at least one student representative, and all are allowed to speak during meetings and cast preferential votes.
The Mat-Su school board created a student advisory board for students to gather and discuss issues affecting their education in 1979. The board then created the student advisory board representative to sit on the board alongside adults with a board policy in 1995.
Most board policies outlining the student representative position use identical language as what’s been codified by the Alaska Legislature, and some other districts expand on that with additional student representatives.
Felix Myers is a Sitka High School student who serves on both the Sitka School Board and the state Board of Education and Early Development as a student representative.
Myers said that the student member’s advisory vote is essential, and removing it would set a concerning precedent.
“I think that it is detrimental to the ability of the school board to create the best education possible for students when it forgets about the voice of those it’s actually trying to serve,” Myers said. “I’m deeply concerned, I think that this change is not in the best interest of the district. I think that student voice is essential, especially on a school board.”
After the May meeting, Kolendo said he was told that he was not allowed to attend school board meetings over the summer, and was not permitted to sit at the dais during the first meeting of the new school year, even though the board policy had not yet been changed.
When the proposal was introduced to the public, two board members said they support allowing the student to continue to speak at any point during meetings. It would take two more members to defeat the proposal. The board is likely to vote on it at their next meeting on Sept. 6.