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csba at issue

by Aaron Davis

Student trustees and your governing board — a mutually beneficial relationship


vital part of effective governance is knowing and understanding the people that you serve: your students.

A group of people gathering together to take a selfie

As such, governing boards of education have important questions to consider: Do we have the pulse of our student body? Do students have a direct and open way to communicate their wants and needs to the board, and does that input directly inform our decision-making process? Are the needs of students dutifully reflected and addressed in our educational programs? Board members can make educated guesses about the answers to these questions and whether they are genuinely meeting students’ needs — but we don’t really know unless we ask students, and listen to their responses when we do.

Answering these questions is markedly easier with a student board member on your governance team, and the answers are more authentic.

California is one of 35 states that includes students on local school boards, and one of only three to require representation when petitioned by students in the district — a petition process governed by California Education Code 35012. Beginning July 1, county boards of education may also have student board members, elected from the student body of high schools under the board’s jurisdiction or selected by the board itself.

Notably, the petition process laid out in ed code applies specifically to local educational agencies that maintain one or more high schools, but it does not prevent any LEA in the state from adding student trustees to its board if it chooses to do so.

According to CSBA data, more than 300 school districts statewide — including two-thirds of all statewide unified and high school districts — have at least one student board member. Many have two or more student trustees. One school district has seven.

Our annual data shows that, perhaps unsurprisingly, around 85 percent of student board members statewide are seniors, and most of the remaining are juniors. At times, there are a few younger students in attendance at CSBA’s student board member trainings, of which four sessions were held in 2022 and early 2023, serving around 200 total students. At the December 2022 session, there was even a seventh grader in attendance — now that is dedication, by both the student and their board.

Having student voice at the table provides invaluable perspective about how board-enacted policies and programs affect students, and adds a unique point of view that we, as adults, simply do not have. They are a link to generational issues and can keep local boards informed about such matters as bullying on campuses, facilities issues, equity, mental health and the success and relevance of programs and activities.

Student trustees can also connect with other students and bring their feedback to the board, providing a wealth of information that boards would be wise to utilize. In an October 2022 survey of student trustees registered to attend CSBA’s Annual Education Conference, students listed a variety of ways they seek to gather this feedback — and the importance of doing so when a potentially high-conflict issue is on a forthcoming agenda. Students used many methods to gather feedback, including emailing and texting their peers, holding “student voice meetings” and forums before the board meeting and issuing calls to action, forming student advocacy committees, establishing shared Google documents, leveraging the help of school staff to send surveys, conducting social media polls, and in some cases presenting to their entire student body.

“I listen to what I hear around campus as people talk with one another,” one student said. “People are most honest with their friends, and I take advantage of that openness to get honest input on topics.”

“Simply asking how [fellow students] feel on a certain topic or issue can go a long way,” another shared.

California Education Code 35012 governs the student-led petition process for adding a student trustee to your board — as well as the rights of those student board members. Two bills enacted in 2017 — Senate Bills 261 and 468 — increased those rights.

SB 261 provides that student board members must receive “preferential voting rights.” This allows them to express their opinion on a motion pending before the board that is recorded in the minutes. The student board member’s vote, however, does not count toward the votes necessary to pass a motion. Along those lines, it is important to note that student board members do not count toward a “majority” of board members for purposes of the Brown Act. For example, when determining whether a meeting of a majority of board members has occurred for purposes of the Brown Act, the presence of a student board member is not counted in determining whether a majority was present.

SB 468 requires meeting materials related to open session items be provided to student members at the same time they are provided to the board. The bill also entitles student board members to receive staff briefings, participate in board functions, participate in discussions of the board during meetings, and be appointed to board subcommittees. None of these rights apply to closed session items. Thus, student board members are not entitled to attend or vote preferentially in closed sessions (including in committee meetings) or receive documents or staff briefings related to closed session items.

While local boards benefit considerably from having student board members, the benefit of serving as a trustee for the students themselves is equally valuable — whether doing so in grade 12, grade 7 or at any point in their academic career.

Student board members learn shared governance up close, while also learning the inner workings of the LEA they attend. They can learn how district staff and administrators are hired, how LEA staff support their school, and how programs and services are developed and approved. They have a front-row seat to see how education is funded, how budgets are approved and how resources are allocated.

And lest we forget, such a leadership activity looks great on college and job applications. According to Crimson Education, a student’s extracurricular activities can factor into the college admission process by as much as 30 percent.

Perhaps most importantly, student board members will be introduced to an activity that can impact their personal and professional lives for years to come. It can ignite a passion within them that they never knew was there and set them on a path for future leadership roles, maybe even one as a future elected district or county board member.

Student board members for the first time will be included in CSBA’s proposal process for workshop sessions for the 2023 Annual Education Conference in San Francisco. Details will be released later this year.

Further reading:
  1. “Student School Board Members in California: Student Voice and Democratic Action,” CSBA fact sheet, Nov. 2021: bit.ly/3Y8LuXL
  2. “Driven, organized & vocal: Today’s student board members are tomorrow’s leaders,” California Schools magazine, fall 2020: bit.ly/41zguDh

Aaron Davis is CSBA’s membership director. CSBA Governance Consultants Luan Rivera and Angelena Pride and CSBA Deputy General Counsel Kristin Lindgren contributed to this article.