PALMER — The Mat-Su school board on Wednesday night sharply restricted the ability of its single student representative to participate in meetings, putting new limits on a position created more than 40 years ago.
At a packed meeting at the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District administrative building, dozens of students wore yellow shirts to show support for student voices. Many waved signs reading “Stand for students” and expressed frustration at a policy change that some described as silencing the sometimes dissenting voice of a representative they elected.
The school board in a 5-2 vote limited the ability of its student representative to speak during meetings, instead authorizing a “brief report,” according to a draft policy amended during the meeting to give the student representative the ability to “be recognized” during meetings. It wasn’t immediately clear what that would mean in practice. Board members Ted Swanson and Jubilee Underwood voted against the policy change.
Several critics of the change accused the board of targeting the current student representative, 18-year-old Ben Kolendo. Kolendo, who has served in that capacity since he was 14 after winning two elections, is a senior at Mat-Su Career & Tech High School.
Kolendo, who has served a longer term than most student representatives, also tends to be more outspoken. He has occasionally clashed with the prevailing sentiment of the board, including at a May meeting where he challenged a decision by the board to hand-pick members of a contentious library board rather than using a lottery, as previously proposed.
At an August school board meeting where the new limits were first proposed but before anything became effective, Kolendo’s seat was moved into the audience without explanation. The student representative seat remained in the audience on Wednesday night.
The decision to remove Kolendo’s seat was the result of conversations between board members and the administration after a summer board retreat where members talked about making the policy revisions at the start of the school year, deputy superintendent Katie Gardner said during the Wednesday night meeting.
The student representative, a position created in 1979, is selected by peers on the district’s Student Advisory Board, which is made up of students from high schools and middle schools across the district who apply for the position or are chosen through elections. During board meetings, they typically represent student interests and serve as a liaison between the school board and the student body.
Until now, the representative sat with other members and was able to question witnesses, discuss issues, review documents ahead of meetings, and cast a symbolic vote, though not participate in closed executive sessions.
The change in Mat-Su is an unusual one. Most Alaska school boards, including Anchorage’s and the state board of education, allow their student representative to sit at the table with other board members, ask questions and make their voices heard.
Nearly everyone testifying Wednesday night expressed dismay about the plan to reduce student representative participation.
“True student representation at a district level is something that is valued by many students, and benefits all,” said student Quinlen Schachle, president of the district’s Student Advisory Board, who noted that an elected student representative has sat at the table with other board members since 1979. “By taking away this position, you symbolically communicate with our students that our voices do not matter enough to have a true say.”
Kristi Shea, a teacher at Mat-Su Career & Technical High School, and this year’s adviser to the Student Advisory Board, described the potential impact on future generations of students and said taking away a student’s opportunity to sit on the board and articulate responses and questions is harmful to both students and the board.
“Our students must have a voice to share what they think is valuable and important and worth fighting for,” Shea said.
School board members, who had provided little clarity on their reasoning at the August meeting, said Wednesday night they hoped to broaden the range of student voices heard at their meetings.
“I want to see more involvement,” said board member Underwood, who said she’d spoken to students in the district who had not heard of the Student Advisory Board. “My heart on this issue is that there would be a collective voice for all students and not a smaller group, but that we could get more input about what kids think about things, especially things that are on the agenda.”
During the August meeting, school board members publicly referenced a need to streamline meetings as one explanation for the proposal, but provided few specifics about any concerns with Kolendo. None returned requests for comment this week.
“The student representative was intended as more of a privilege for the student body, as opposed to a right as an elected official,” board member Jacob Butcher, who represents the Big Lake and Knik Goose-Bay area, said at the August meeting.
Kolendo said in an interview after Wednesday night’s meeting that he was heartened by how many students had shown up in support of him and themselves — more than he’s ever seen at a school board meeting — and hoped his peers would continue to attend meetings and speak up on issues they care about.
“This can seem very demeaning, like, ‘Oh, we don’t matter anymore. We don’t have a voice,’” he said. “You still have a voice. It’s just, you have to try a little harder.”
The board also in a unanimous vote established a new policy limiting to one hour the amount of public comment allowed for any testimony on non-agenda items. The change also will mean that if more than 20 people sign up for public participation, a lottery system will be used to choose the order that testimony happens.
The policy was amended during the meeting to remove an additional proposed time limit on public comment for items on the agenda, and to include a provision that anyone who is not able to speak has the option to provide written testimony.