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Berkshire students want more than a voice on school committees — they want a vote

Student representatives of the Pittsfield School Committee seated at a meeting (copy)

From left: Bhumi Patel, Lisa Chen and Emmett Krantz comprise the student representatives of the Pittsfield School Committee. With backing from State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, the students are pushing to get votes on matters presented to that body.

Local students, with backing from their state representative, are pushing to allow for a student vote on decisions that come before school committees.

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, has introduced a bill in the state Legislature that would allow student-members of school committees to vote on such decisions. State Sen. Paul Mark, D-Becket, and state Rep. Smitty Pignatelli, D-Lenox, are co-sponsors.

If it passes, Massachusetts would become the second state to allow student-representatives such power. The proposed legislation rewrites Massachusetts General Laws to provide for student representatives elected by student councils, who now are mere advisers to the city or town or regional school committees, to participate in the decision-making on questions brought before the committees. The legislation includes forming student-advisory committees, elected by students, “to assist the elected student representatives.”

“I think (such a law) would ... give more rights to students,” said Bhumi Patel, a Taconic High School junior and student representative on the Pittsfield School Committee.

“I love the idea because we’ll have more of a voice and a take on things rather than us just providing advice,” Lisa Chen, a Pittsfield High School sophomore and also a student representative on the committee, said.

Joey Pisani, director of legislative affairs for the Massachusetts Association of Student Representatives, said, “Students deserve a voice and a say, and a vote on school committees to be a part of making decisions on policies directly affecting them.”

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The students are enthusiastic: Their elders, who traditionally make all the committee decisions, are less so.

Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees Glen Koocher said his organization opposes allowing student representatives to vote on school committees. Instead, he said, his group supports lowering the voting age to 16 for municipal elections so students have the right to vote on school-committee members.

“Sometimes the student council is not made up of a group of people who represent the students in truth,” Koocher said. “Why should a group of nine student councilors get to pick a voting member of the school committee when every other member of the school committee gets elected by the community?”

Koocher added: “If a student wants to run for the school committee, let them run for the school committee. And make it easier for them by lowering the voting age.”

Farley-Bouvier’s bill was ignited by a group of students, including William Garrity, now a Taconic High School alum and former student representative, who presented her the idea in the last legislative session. Students later asked Farley-Bouvier if she’d be the lead sponsor of the bill, and she agreed.

“It makes all sorts of sense to me for students to have a voting voice on the school committee,” Farley-Bouvier said. “It’s about them, after all.”

Her support includes the benefit of getting young people involved: “I appreciate the ability to work with students. It doesn’t get better than this as far as civics education.”

Pisani, a junior at Gateway Regional High School in Huntington, said that today’s student representatives lack real power.

“Student representatives find themselves being like, ‘This week we had spirit week in the high school.’ At the same time important conversations are being had about decisions directly impacting students,” Pisani said. “I’ve had students say to me they feel as though they’re a token on the school committee.”

Chen said students should vote on such classroom matters as the curriculum. “After the first meeting we had,” she said, “I was like, ‘I wish we could’ve voted on stuff; I wish I had a more active role in participating at meetings.’”

Patel said there have been times she wished she could’ve voted on a matter brought before the committee. Pisani said he has heard from students who would’ve liked to vote on their schools’ bullying and dress-code policies.

Pittsfield Public schools wonder if handing out Chromebooks to every student is still a good idea, or even worth the cost to taxpayers

Patel highlighted one possible area of disagreement: Chromebooks.

Pittsfield Public Schools, to allow for virtual education, moved to a one-Chromebook-per-student policy when the pandemic hit. But now the district is faced with a decision about whether to continue a program that has rung up losses of about $1 million.

In a recent school committee meeting, Pittsfield Superintendent Joseph Curtis reported that the schools had lost about 4,000 Chromebooks over the last two school years.

“We may go back to pre-pandemic where we had Chromebook carts in each classroom, and students wouldn’t have the opportunity to take them home,” Patel said. “As a student I feel strongly that the one-to-one Chromebook ratio should continue because that’s how it works going further into college or the workforce. We are of that era; we are surrounded by technology.”

Curtis on Wednesday declined to comment on the legislation.

Pisani said he and other students are expecting pushback from administrators.

“What this bill would be doing is redirecting some of the power of a school committee to a student,” he said. “I think the opposition is coming from administration and probably from some school committees.”

“We’ve been told by a couple people, this (bill) could be considered a controversial or radical thing,” Pisani said.

Most Pittsfield teachers want to limit Chromebook usage to the classroom, but students and families want to keep the computers, a survey found

Nevertheless, Patel, Pisani and Chen are hopeful the Legislature will pass the legislation.

Farley-Bouvier said that she has heard from colleagues who are “intrigued” by the bill. “I think it’s going to be a good discussion this session,” she said. She has also heard pushback, noting that a recent statute requires five student representatives per committee, “So we’d have to make sure there aren’t five voting members on the school committee.”

“There are issues around local charters, so we have to make sure there’s alignment there,” she said. She argued against claims that students should be 18 years old to vote on school committees, as students who are younger than 18 already vote on superintendent search committees.

The state of Maryland allowed student-representatives to vote in recent years, and legal challenges brought the issue to that state’s Supreme Court, which ultimately upheld student-voting rights.

Farley-Bouvier said she isn’t clear on where administrators will stand on the issue.

“I haven’t heard pushback from them yet, but I haven’t yet heard their support,” she said. “I’m hoping that the Pittsfield School Committee and other school committees are going to be supportive of this and say, ‘Yes, we’re with our students on this.’”

Sten Spinella can be reached at sspinella@berkshireeagle.com or 860-853-0085.

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