Local boards of education are comprised of elected members of the community tasked with helping determine educational policy to meet the needs of a school district’s students within the ability of the community’s ability to pay their share. Some school boards include a student representative as a non-voting member, there to serve as a liaison between the board, district administration and the student body. Of the four districts within Hudson Valley One’s coverage, only the largest, the Kingston City School District, doesn’t have a student rep.
Unlike trustees, student representatives are not elected to the role by the public, serving instead after a brief application and interview process. But as a member of the school board, they attend meetings, present reports and engage in discussion about district matters.
Saugerties: Jillian Murphy and Jaden Whittaker
Most years, the Saugerties Central School District (SCSD) has a single student representative to the board of education. The 2020-21 school year being an unusually challenging one in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the district has two student reps on the school board: Jillian Murphy and Jaden Whittaker, both seniors.
“Being able to speak for the student body and help express their thoughts and ideas is what I found most interesting about being a student representative,” said Murphy.
Whittaker agreed that serving as a voice of the students of the district was appealing.
“The interesting part of being the role of student representative was that I would be the one who is the message between the student body and the board of education, as well as the board of education to the student body,” Whittaker said. “This allows for any important information to be heard by the board and information from the board to be brought back to the student body.”
Whittaker said he was intrigued by the position of student representative from attending school board meetings in the past.
“Previously, before becoming a senior and getting into this role, I’d been to past board of education meetings and saw different students in the role of the student representative and it seemed pretty important. And knowing that I was someone who was always involved and always having conversations with the administration of the school, I thought it was the best decision for me to take on this role of being the voice between the student body and the board of education.”
During the pandemic, SCSD school board meetings are held semi-remotely, with the superintendent and board president among a very small number of socially-distanced people inside the high school library and media center, with everyone else — including other trustees, administrators and the student rep usually attending remotely. Meetings are live-streamed to the public. With school currently shifting between hybrid attendance and remote learning, the role of the student representative is the same as ever, but the approach is often different.
“The role is definitely what I anticipated, but being hybrid/remote there has been much less to speak on since we have not been able to do as much being online,” said Murphy. “As a student rep, I get most of my information from the student council meetings and present it to the board at their meetings. We update them on what’s going on with the students and what we have planned.”
With so much of student life happening differently on and off campus, it can be a challenge hearing from everyone and sharing a sense of normalcy that doesn’t necessarily exist right now.
“It’s sometimes a struggle gathering meeting notes,” said Whittaker. “Many of the school events and different things that go on during the school year cannot go as planned due to the current pandemic that we’re in.”
Whittaker said he is given an opportunity to confer with school officials like Saugerties High School principal Timothy Reid ahead of meetings in an effort to make his own presentations as concise and formal as possible.
Having two student representatives allows for Murphy and Whittaker to share alternating tasks, with one presenting to the board at a meeting while the other takes notes; the roles switch from meeting to meeting. Ultimately, Murphy said, this gives them the best opportunity to successfully serve in their roles as student representatives.
“What I find is so important about the student representative role is that it keeps the student body connected to the board of education and those in charge,” Murphy said. “It’s important that they hear our ideas and what students have to say, so it is overall very beneficial to both the board and the student body.”
Onteora: Leon Savage
Leon Savage is a senior at Onteora High School. He said he was attracted to the role of student representative to the school board because it provided “the ability to change the school environment and help others succeed.
Savage said the Covid-19 pandemic has sometimes had an impact on the role of the student rep.
“The main difference has been technology capabilities and the difficulty to meet at ideal times,” he said. “But overall, the work and progress we have made has not changed…As a student rep, my job is to take student-provided information to the board of education and work with them to improve student quality. This means that when we went hybrid in the first place, my job was to work with the board to provide a reasonable and reliable system that benefitted the students. I meet with the student government along with the principal, Mr. (Lance) Edelman, to ensure that student voices are heard. When there’s miscommunication, everything falls apart and that’s the most difficult part. Especially with the world falling apart, it is my job to make sure everyone gets heard, not just the loudest ones.”
Savage said that serving as the conduit between the students and school district is a crucial role he takes very seriously.
“Student representative is a job I hold with a lot of care. Students have had their voices shut out for years, and without an effective system to run our voices through I fail to do my job.”
New Paltz: Samantha Wong-Pan
Samantha Wong-Pan, student representative to the New Paltz Central School District’s board of education, is a high school junior. She was intrigued by the role of student rep to ensure that the students’ voices were being heard during a particularly trying time. Wong-Pan said the student council had asked the school board to add a student rep, but no seniors had shown an interest.
“This school year has been very experimental with hybrid and remote and all that new stuff,” said Wong-Pan. “And I thought it was important that we had a student voice representing what they want in this new year, since they’re the ones who have to deal with how it’s being run.”
Wong-Pan said she had to make a case with faculty for a junior to serve as student rep before she was given the chance. Serving in the role just a few weeks as of press time, Wong-Pan said she’s already noticing differences in how the student rep operates during a pandemic.
“I’m guessing there are fewer activities that I have to monitor since there are not as many events going on,” she said. “So mainly what I’m focusing on is just communication between the students.”
Wong-Pan said she’s been working with the New Paltz High student council on a survey covering a wide range of topics to ensure everyone’s voices are being heard. Though she’s only attended one remote board meeting as student rep so far, Wong-Pan has already picked up on some hot-button issues she’d like to further discuss with other students.
“I’d like to talk about the attendance debate, whether you should have your camera on or off if you’re totally remote learning,” she said. “So I think that would be a really interesting perspective to get because I hear a lot of adult opinions about it.”
Wong-Pan also said she wants to get student feedback on a survey the district is giving parents about potential schedule changes and asynchronous learning days.
“Flexible Tuesdays it’s called, which I think students should talk about because it’s a little bit weird,” she said. “If the board is representing the school and is making changes for it, then it’s directly affecting the students. And it just makes sense to have one of the students who was facing all the decision-making there and hear their input on it.”