Mat-Su school board votes to sideline student representative, despite overwhelming opposition

A crowd of people wave yellow signs
Members of the audience wave yellow signs in support of student representative Ben Kolendo during a Mat-Su school board meeting on Sept. 6, 2023. (Tim Rockey / Alaska Public Media)

The Matanuska-Susitna school board voted Wednesday to remove most opportunities for its student representative to participate in board work. The board passed the changes to its policy by a 5-2 vote despite overwhelming opposition from members of the public.

People packed the school board administrative building wearing yellow shirts in support of student representative Ben Kolendo, a senior at Career Tech High School in Wasilla. Eleven students and 11 adults testified against the changes, and only one person spoke in support. 

“By taking away this position, you symbolically communicate with us students that our voices do not matter enough to have a true say in what occurs in our community,” said Wasilla High School senior Quinlen Schachle. “This way of thinking is archaic and incredibly degrading and dehumanizing to students all across the MSBSD.” 

Board members questioned what legal training Kolendo received to become the student representative and said they supported more reports from student leadership groups at the meeting, but did not speak broadly about their reasons for the changes.

At an Aug. 16 meeting, board member Jacob Butcher said members had determined that Kolendo’s pointed questions during heated debates had necessitated the changes to board policy “in order to effectively and efficiently carry out our business.” 

The board’s changes include removing the title of “member” from the student representative and the ability for the student to cast an advisory vote. Board members also deleted language that said the student “shall have the right to attend public meetings of the Board, be recognized at meetings, participate in questioning witnesses and discussing issues.”

The photo of Kolendo that had previously been displayed with the rest of the board members in the main entryway to the district office building was removed, and Kolendo was no longer allowed to sit at the dais with board members as he had last semester. Kolendo gave an impassioned speech just prior to the board’s final vote on the policy changes. 

“These disheartening developments have cast a shadow over my ability to continue as a willing participant within a system that, to my dismay, seems to place our self-interest above the authentic needs of our students,” Kolendo said. 

A photo of a school board member next to an empty spot where a photo of a student representative would go.
A space for student representative Ben Kolendo’s photo sits empty in the front lobby of the Mat-Su Borough School District administrative office building. (Tim Rockey/Alaska Public Media)

Under the new policy, the student representative can attend meetings, give a brief report regarding the actions of the Student Advisory Board and speak when called on.

According to the Alaska Association of School Boards, 28 Alaska school districts have student board representatives. Most school board policies related to student representatives are identical to what the Mat-Su school board removed from their board policies on Wednesday. The wording comes from the association’s school board model policies, which were introduced in 1997. 

“AASB has long advocated that having a student voice on the board can be helpful and an asset to the board because it brings a perspective of the actual recipient of the educational program to the board table,” AASB Executive Director Lon Garrison said in an email.

Wet, yellow signs on a table
Yellow signs are left on a table outside of the Mat-Su Borough School District administrative offices. (Tim Rockey/Alaska Public Media)

Board members asked Kolendo how the Student Advisory Board functions and how students are chosen to participate. School Board members Kathy McCollum and Jubilee Underwood advocated for greater representation of student voices to the board, speaking in support of additional reports from student leadership groups. 

“Personally, I would like to hear opinions, concerns, comments, good things from a bigger variety of students,” said McCollum. “I hear that you are the student government and student leadership, but I know that we have a lot of other groups in the district.” 

Ted Swanson and Underwood cast the only votes against the amended board policy. 

“What I would hope is that there would be more inclusiveness from all the different groups like are stated in here that you’re getting, however you do it, surveys or opinions of students everywhere so that we can actually hear more of a collective voice from students,” Underwood said. 

In over an hour of public testimony on the proposed changes, only Butte resident Ron Johnson — the Alaska Republican Party Region 2 representative — spoke in favor of the board’s changes to the policy. 

“I don’t think the students understand they never did have a voice on the board. Only the elected members from the public have that voice so they’re not being silenced,” Johnson said. “We still hear their voice, they still have the opportunity to speak.”

a portrait of a man outside

Tim Rockey is the producer of Alaska News Nightly and covers education for Alaska Public Media. Reach him attrockey@alaskapublic.orgor 907-550-8487. Read more about Timhere

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