Can Students Serve on California School Boards?

by Michaela Klein Weinstein | May 31, 2019 | 3 Comments
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Yes! And Here's What You Need to Know

So you were just elected student representative on your school district’s board, or you are trying to create a student representative position. Congratulations or good luck!

This position comes with great responsibility, and it can be an extremely enriching experience. It can also feel a little daunting. I was confused as to what my rights were when I was first seated as a student member of the board in my district, Albany. This post answers most of the questions I had. I hope it proves to be helpful to you.

How Are Student Representatives Elected?

Student board representatives are chosen in different ways depending on the policies set by each school board. Some are elected. Some are appointed to their positions by student councils or other student groups.

If your school district includes a high school, your school board probably already includes at least one student member. If it doesn't, your district is behind the times, and you have a straightforward job to do: create and circulate a petition for student representation. All you need is the signatures of 10% of the high school students in your district. (If your district is huge, you only need 500 signatures.)

Here's some sample language you can use (or work from):

We, the undersigned, call on [name of school district] to add a student member position to the governing board with preferential voting rights as defined in California law, including the right to make motions that may be acted upon by the governing board. We ask that the selection process provide all high schools in the district with the opportunity to nominate one or more candidates in time for a student member to be selected and seated prior to July 1 of each year. We recommend that the student selected be a rising junior, leaving the opportunity for this representative to advance as a senior to represent students in the county board of education or the state board of education.

No matter the process by which they are chosen, the power that student representatives hold comes from the minors that select them. Minors, those under 18 years of age, cannot vote in most elections in California, but there are exceptions in some places for school board elections. There are some efforts to provide students a larger role in the civic leadership of schools, including full voting rights for student representatives, but currently we have to work with what we’ve got.

What are my rights as a student representative?

You vote first. Your vote is recorded but not counted.

So what exactly are those rights that we have? California law, which spells out some of the rights of student representatives, was amended in 2018 by Assembly Bill 261 (Thurmond). Under this law, students seated on school boards in California have a preferential vote, an expression of preference that is cast prior to the votes of the rest of the members of the board. Although a student representative's vote is not counted in the outcome, voting members can take the student's preference into consideration. The student's vote is recorded in the minutes of the meeting.

AB261 also clarified that student members participate fully in the work of the board when it is in open session, including questioning witnesses and having timely access to open session materials. Timely, in this case, means that student representatives get access to the materials at the same time voting members do, ahead of the meeting so that they can prepare.

It's better for districts to have student reps that are juniors, not seniors.

Student board members serve a one-year term. Depending on the process prescribed by your district, student representatives may be re-appointed for another term. California law doesn’t require a student member to be any particular grade level or age. In practice, however, it makes sense for school boards to seat student members earlier in their high school education because in senior year students have many conflicting demands. Also, students who distinguish themselves in service to their school board early in their high school experience may be good candidates for advanced offices such as service on county boards of education and the California State Board of Education.

What About My District?

Your powers are set by your board. Review them.

School boards set their own bylaws, which can give varying levels of responsibility to their student representatives, so it is useful to look into them. For example, your board can adopt a resolution permitting you to make motions. It can give (or withhold) the power to object to items on the consent calendar, which are adopted without discussion unless a trustee objects. The board policy will determine whether you can make or second motions. It may also indicate whether student representatives can give direction to staff.

If you are not sure whether your district allows students to make or second a motion, reach out to your superintendent or board president, or review your district’s governance handbook. Even if your board does not allow students to take actions such as approvals, motions or seconding of motions, you still have a voice. Voting board members are often extremely responsive to the requests of student members, and will want to support you.

If your board policies are restrictive, consider starting the conversation with your board members about amending them.

Why Can't Student Board Representatives Attend Closed Sessions?

Most school board meetings are open to the public, but there are certain topics that school boards may only consider in closed session. Student board representatives cannot attend these sessions for a variety of reasons, mainly related to employee and student privacy rights. Closed session items include pending litigation, personnel-related litigation, and student disciplinary cases. Student board representatives cannot request information regarding closed session, what was discussed, or why certain decisions were made.

How Can I Pass Policy?

Not alone. But there are actions you can take to gain support for your policy ideas. In most school boards, the president sets the agenda, working with the school district superintendent and perhaps with another board member. Items can also be brought up by community members during portions of the agenda with a label such as “Matters Not on the Agenda,” regular updates given to the board, direction that the district office needs from the board, or board Members bringing them up during “Matters Introduced by the Board.”

If your school board policy permits it, you can introduce legislation in the same fashion that other (voting) board members do. That is, you can introduce it to the board during the part of the meeting for “Matters Introduced by the Board.” This item usually comes at the end of meetings, so depending on how long your board meetings go, you may have to stay at the meeting fairly late. I recommend having a conversation with a voting member or your superintendent prior to bringing a topic up in this way, so that you can gauge their interest.

Regulations About Meeting With Board Members

Basically, the Brown Act doesn't apply to you.

As a student member of the school board, you have a seat, but not a full vote. This has unexpected advantages; specifically, you are not subject to some regulations that regular voting members find frustrating.

The Brown Act is California's law governing open meetings. It requires boards to conduct their work formally, in public view, with advance notice. Under this law, board members cannot casually discuss matters that relate to the work of the board, especially if the conversation involves a quorum of the voting members of the board (a quorum is usually defined as a majority).

Because student members of school boards are not voting members, their presence doesn't affect whether a quorum is present. You can meet with members of your board without violating the Brown act.

For example, if a board has five voting members, three voting members cannot meet together informally to talk about issues related to the board's work. In contrast, any number of student representatives may meet with voting members of the board as long as the number of voting members present does not constitute a majority of the voting board. (There's some fine print. For example, you can't serve as a backchannel to privately convey information among voting board members — this is known as a "serial meeting" violation of the Brown Act. You have to be aware that your fellow board members are constrained in what they can do, especially when it comes to technology like social media. But the general point holds: your vote doesn't count, so the Brown Act is unlikely to get in your way.)

Perhaps I shouldn't mention this, but there's one more benefit to the fact that your presence doesn't make a difference in the calculation of a quorum: if the meeting is dragging on, you can go home.

What Should I Do With This Information?

According to California Law, you have the right as a pupil member to cast your preferential vote ahead of the binding votes. Use it! If your district does not yet give you a preferential vote, start the conversation with your board about how to get that vote. You have a responsibility to your peers to advocate for the student body.

If your board does not currently provide its student member the power to make motions, I recommend that you seek changes to the board policy to add that capability, because it increases your ability to influence decision making. With all of this information, along with the other content offered on Ed100, you are sure to be an effective representative of your student body.

Serving as a student board representative is an amazing opportunity to advocate for your peers. As students we spend an incredible amount of time in school. Being a part of the board that makes decisions about our education means you now have a platform to advocate for change in your daily life. Use that platform to truly influence your school community for years to come. Your peers as well as the future students of your district thank you for being their voice on the board!

Michaela Klein Weinstein is an activist and student representative on the Albany School Board. She co-founded Speak, an educational organization that facilitates social justice education in schools. She also is a member of Best Buddies Int., California Youth and Government, and is currently developing tools to help student representatives become more effective in their roles.

Questions & Comments

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user avatar
tom nelson August 29, 2019 at 6:43 am
Are there school districts that have had a petition for student representation on the school board? If so, can you list some.
user avatar
Jennifer B June 3, 2019 at 9:41 am
Bravo! This is clear, informative and beautifully written. Having attended dozens of school board meetings across the state, I never understood why certain districts had student members.
In one case, I saw real value being added -- a student had done a poll about what seemed to be a feel-good issue and had found a lot of resistance. The Board agreed that further research was needed to understand whether it was just a messaging issue or whether they'd actually misgauged their community. If memory serves, it was college related and the feedback was that some students' parents were being inadvertently insulted. Many parents in the district did not have college degrees but had successful gardening, cleaning, plumbing, roofing and car repair businesses.
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