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Keep teens off school boards, group says
By Bob Susnjara | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 11/6/2007 1:25 AM

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Teenagers often are encouraged to participate in community service.

But an elected high school board position might be removed from the list of possibilities.

Elected school officials across Illinois are being asked to back a proposed change to state law that would prohibit voting-age students from serving on the boards of the public districts where they are enrolled.

James Russell, a spokesman for the Illinois Association of School Boards, said it's not that his group believes teenagers are not mature enough to be elected leaders where they attend classes. Instead, he said, a high school student on a board poses too many potential conflicts of interest.

"The student is now, technically, his teacher or principal's 'boss,' " according to the recommendation from the school board association's resolutions committee. "The student is now voting on all salary and contract decisions for all personnel in the district."

Committee members, who serve on school boards statewide, said problems also could arise because students would become privy to confidential discussions about disciplinary matters involving peers and teachers.

Mark Metzger, president of the Naperville-area Indian Prairie Unit District 204 board, chaired the state association's resolution committee. He said the idea to ban teens from school boards barely made it as a committee recommendation after much debate.

Those in the minority cited "American Democracy" in not wanting to deny students of legal voting age who meet all requirements the right to run for a board seat, according to a summary of the resolution committee's rationale.

Metzger didn't vote on the recommendation but said he believes some rules could be established to allow a student on a school board, perhaps by setting parameters about disciplinary cases or other touchy matters.

"From a purely personal point of view, I like the fact someone that age is interested enough to give their time," Metzger said.

The change is one of several resolutions being proposed by the organization, which holds its annual Chicago conference late next week.

Officials admitted that teens running to serve on their own school boards is a relatively rare occurrence.

At least four Illinois teenagers -- three of them from the Chicago suburbs -- were in high school board races in April. Illinois has about 870 high school and elementary districts.

Of the four teens who sought election, only one -- an 18-year-old junior from Peoria -- won a school board seat.

Jacob Novar finished seventh in a race for three seats on the Evanston Township High School District 202 board. He said he disagrees with the reasons cited for the proposed law change.

"To me, it doesn't make any sense at all. When I was running, my intention was not to sabotage my teachers," Novar said. Instead, he said, he wanted to push for change on behalf of students and create more board discussion on issues.

Some suburban school board members also said they are against the proposed change. Among them is Richard Conley, a board member at Warren Township High School in Gurnee.

Conley said the change would unfairly target students but allow other people with possible conflicts, such as a teacher who's a union leader in one district serving on a board and negotiating employment contracts at another school system.

"I believe as long as a student is 18 or older, they should have the right to serve on a local school board," Conley said. "I see this as no different as any other political position. There really is no conflict of interest as the student has no financial interest."