Education

Merced high school board wanted to add student rep. Here’s why the initiative was halted

Newly elected board Vice President Tiffany Pickle (left) and Clerk Erin Hamm speak at the Jan. 9, 2019 Merced Union High School District school board meeting. Board members were discussing whether to suspend an initiative creating a school board member so the newly elected members can have their say.
Newly elected board Vice President Tiffany Pickle (left) and Clerk Erin Hamm speak at the Jan. 9, 2019 Merced Union High School District school board meeting. Board members were discussing whether to suspend an initiative creating a school board member so the newly elected members can have their say. vshanker@mercedsunstar.com

For more than a year Merced Union High School District board member John Medearis has been talking about adding a student member to the five-person school board.

The idea, which Medearis and fellow board member Julio Valadez got from a statewide school board conference, would be to add a student voice to the school board that would not just report what students are doing, but bring student concerns and give a valuable perspective rarely heard at the school board level.

And amid several students who last year shared stories of sexual harassment and violence complaints allegedly being mishandled by administrators, the board agreed in August to move forward with adding a student board member and creating a subcommittee to work out the details.

The new board member could entail anything from a single student having a ceremonial vote that expresses a student position on board topics, to a position that rotates, or leaders of different schools that give the school board a report.

Medearis said he preferred the former.

But a divided school board decision on Jan. 9 that suspended the subcommittee has frustrated Medearis and Valadez, who have put in months of work. Two newly elected board members, Erin Hamm and Tiffany Pickle, now want in on the process.

“The board is ‘for’ having a student voice,” Lopez said, noting the issue will be discussed Wednesday night during a study session regarding Superintendent Alan Peterson’s goals for 2019. “We’re still trying to get Hamm and Pickle’s insight on it, understand how the process is going, so they have a clear understanding.”

But Medearis and Valadez have their doubts.

“If what is being said is true, then we can talk through the process,” Medearis told the Sun-Star. “But I think they may have other opinions about a student board member.”

Medearis said there wasn’t unanimous support when the student board member idea was first brought up to last year’s board. Medearis, Valadez and former board member Gregory Opinski had expressed support, while Lopez, former board member Dave Honey and Superintendent Alan Peterson didn’t have the same enthusiasm, Medearis said.

Turning the initiative into a superintendent goal also took it out of the board’s hands, Medearis said.

“You can only give a superintendent so many goals,” Medearis said. “This takes effort. That’s why we requested a subcommittee. My concern is if the superintendent and other board members are not in support of a student board member, adding a student voice might take longer to implement, and may not even become a goal.”

When asked if he supported the creation of a student board position, Peterson said his job was to carry out the request of the board.

Peterson said the board on Wednesday will determine “what is the best way to bring students’ voice to the table, and is that way adding a student board member or is that another process?”

But is it OK for new board members to roll back a previous decision just to have their say?

Lopez said he was “100 percent all for” the student board position. But he said it also was important for Pickle and Hamm to give their perspective.

When asked, Hamm didn’t say if she would support the student board member initiative, but said she wanted more discussion about it.

“I think anything we can do to engage our students, making sure we’re not just getting the voice on one campus, I’m absolutely in favor of,” Hamm said. “However, we’re not in the loop on what that process looks like. We’d like to have our voice as well, and maybe there is a more efficient and more effective way to have that student voice.”

Pickle and Valadez didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The board will discuss the student board position and other ongoing and future goals for the superintendent during Wednesday’s study session.

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