Thursday, August 10, 2017

Teens serving on school boards

Jake Leahy
Two 18-year-olds elected in April are among the youngest ever to serve on local boards of education, and will join more than 1,400 new school board members elected in Illinois this year.

Jake Leahy was sworn in by Bannockburn District 106 officials in May. Owen Mallery was sworn in by Putnam County CUSD 535 officials just a few days later. Leahy, who turned 18 on March 13, is a few months younger than Mallery, whose birthday is Oct. 10.

Officials admit that having an 18-year-old serving on a board is unusual, but neither Mallery nor Leahy is the first. Aaron Schock, who later served as a state lawmaker and Congressman, won a seat on the Peoria SD 150 Board of Education in 2001 at age 19. He was the youngest person then serving on a school board in Illinois.
Owen Mallery

Jim Tenuto, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections, said his agency does not keep track
of candidate ages, but “it’s probably a safe assumption” that 18 is the youngest age of anyone ever elected to a school district seat in Illinois.

According to the Illinois School Law Survey, the qualifications to serve as a school board member are, as of the date of the election: a U.S. citizen, a resident of the state and school district for at least one year preceding election, at least 18 years of age, and a registered voter. State law also has additional prohibitions that govern qualifications.

Serving at such an age has its own challenges; in fact, both Leahy and Mallery were still students in high school when they were elected.

“No school board member has any power outside of the majority vote, so unless I can convince three other people on the school board to believe the way I believe, nothing will happen,” Mallery told the LaSalle News-Tribune prior to the election. “If there was an issue that came up, I would more than likely recuse myself from voting [on potentially sensitive issues while he was still a student].”

Leahy did not face that same objection because the Lake County board he joined does not govern his school. Like Mallery; however, he does not believe their relative young age detracts from their school board service.

“I think that having a young person who recently graduated will be a great asset,” Leahy told the Daily North Shore a week after the election. “There are six other members of the board who are businesspeople, attorneys, doctors, etcetera….I will bring one new, diverse opinion with hopefully an understanding of what is going on in the school each day,” he said, adding that this  array of experience will create “a strong, diverse environment of different viewpoints.”

Both Leahy and Mallery said they were motivated to run for a board seat by a desire to bring a youth perspective to the school board. Mallery, in fact, has said he ran on a platform of being a youthful voice and trying to make a difference, and nothing more.

But Leahy notes he also was inspired to run to develop greater communication and transparency between the board and the community. He said he wants to get student representation on the board, in addition to soliciting input from various district stakeholders, including recent graduates and community members.

What prepared the teenagers to run?

Mallery indicates he got ready to run by following his own interest in government, as well as some guidance he received from Jay McCracken, the former superintendent. “He had been kind of a mentor to me,” Mallery said.

Leahy said it was also his natural inclination to run in order to get involved in government. He notes that he interned with former U.S. Rep. Robert Dold’s campaign during his sophomore year and worked last year with Republican Rod Drobinski’s campaign for state representative. Leahy also founded the Deerfield High School Political Club.

“I've always been involved politically,” Leahy said. “I pay attention.”

So far, he has attended two special meetings about the district’s budget, and has been surprised by how contentious some budgetary issues were. “There are a lot of weighty issues to consider,” he said.

Likewise, Mallery said the budget is the key agenda item he has considered thus far. He said his board meetings have not surprised him, though, because he had a good idea what to expect from the mentoring he received from former superintendent McCracken.

The recent high school graduates hope to accomplish things of real value in board service.

Leahy said: “I’m most looking forward to improving the everyday environment of the students and teachers in the school.” He says a key part of that is to advocate for the establishment of an advisory board for students, parents, recent alumni, and community members within the school district.

Mallery has focused his intentions, again, on providing the board with a young person’s perspective.

The immediate plans of both Mallery and Leahy include higher education.

Mallery says he is attending Bradley University this fall, heading off to Peoria, which is not a long drive from Putnam County. He has been making arrangements to drive home or video chat for meetings if needed.

Meanwhile, Leahy, who will be living a 2.5-hour drive away from his home near Deerfield at a dormitory on the University of Illinois’ Champaign-Urbana campus, plans to study public policy and law.

Leahy said he is arranging his class schedule to work around monthly board meetings. He said he'll also maintain open lines of communication with constituents through various means, including social media.

Although both know they will have to make some sacrifices, they are not worried.