The millennial generation has arrived in school board politics. Maybe not in great numbers, and not everywhere. But surely in one Maryland school system, where millennials once again make up a majority of elected board members.
In Prince George’s County, Maryland, five of nine elected members are in their 20s. All grew up in the county and graduated from its schools. They don’t have children, but they say they are deeply connected to the classrooms they once learned in.
Several have been among the board’s most outspoken members.
“We bring blunt honesty,” said Raaheela Ahmed, 25, a program manager for a nonprofit. “Some folks are very concerned about style and find it uncomfortable to be so forward. But it’s necessary for progress to have people who are willing to do that.”
As new school board members were sworn in last week, Prince George’s stands out for the number of its millennials – a generation now about 22 to 37 years old – and the extent of their effect in a school system that is one of the country’s 25 largest, with more than 132,000 students.
Nationally, the median age of school board members is 59, according to a recent survey by the National School Boards Association – more than twice the age of Ahmed and others.
“Especially for a large school system, that is remarkable,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, who has done research on school boards nationally. “It’s more typically going to be citizens who are older, who have developed deep roots in the community and who have a web of relationships.”
Hess and others say school board seats often attract parents who want to see a particular change in their children’s schools, former educators, or middle-aged and retired people looking for ways to serve. For some, the positions are a springboard to higher political office.
Still, they are not the glamour jobs of politics.
“It’s very demanding,” said Frances Hughes Glendening, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. “Many more meetings than people think. Most people don’t realize how much time goes into it.”
Several county school boards in the Washington region said they had no millennial members. Fairfax County counts two on its 12-person board, a spokesman said.
In Prince George’s, the millennials belong to a 14-member school board – with nine elected members, four appointees and a student member. Their number increased after the 2016 election.
Several millennials have been the force behind a minority bloc that in the last two years brought attention to inflated graduation rates, large pay raises to executive staff and a nearly $800,000 contract payout to a schools chief whose tenure was marred by scandal.
“Some of the things that were exposed needed to be exposed and probably would not have been if not for them,” said Doris Reed, executive director of the union that represents the county’s principals and administrators.
The graduation rates controversy led to a state-ordered investigation that found some students improperly graduated and others lacked evidence they had met requirements. A second audit, released lastweek, found high absenteeism in the Class of 2018.
Several of the millennial board members say they bring political independence and urgency about change to the job. And then there’s this: Given that they’re just a few years out of college, the issues that students and teachers face are not a distant memory.
“It helps to have walked in our students’ shoes more recently, in the very schools that they attend,” said David Murray, 26, who graduated from Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt, Maryland, in 2010 and is in his second year as a teacher in neighboring Washington, D.C.
But getting a seat on the board is not easy. Murray lost twice before he won a spot. Ahmed lost once before her victory.
Board newcomer Joshua Thomas, 25, won against an incumbent 20 years his senior but said he did so without support from most local political leaders. He was endorsed by employee unions and knocked on 10,000 doors in his district, he said.
“Millennials are really ready to push back against the traditional way of governing as we know it,” he said, saying that while they collaborate with others, they don’t “fall in line” according to political leaders’ expectations.
The Pew Research Center defines the millennial generation as people born between 1981 and 1996. As a group, they are more educated than earlier generations and have children later, researchers said.
The Prince George’sboard includes members in their 40s and 50s, but its longest-serving member is a millennial: Edward Burroughs III, who joined as a student board member when he was 15 years old, attending Crossland High in Temple Hills, Maryland, and has won three elections as an adult. He is 26.
Since 2016, Burroughs has found allies in Murray, a friend since sixth grade and onetime student member of the Maryland State Board of Education, and Ahmed, a year younger, once a student member on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents. Together, the three call themselves the accountability and solutions caucus. They were at odds with the board majority through a string of controversies.
But last week, as new members were sworn in, board dynamics appeared to be shifting.
Newcomers included Thomas, a manager of recruitment for historically black colleges and universities at Teach for America after serving as a teacher for two years, and Paul Monteiro, 38, an almost-millennial who worked in the Obama White House and was named to an appointed position.
A new county executive, Angela Alsobrooks, named a new board chairman: Alvin Thornton, 70, a longtime college professor who led a state education funding commission commonly known by his name.
Burroughs said he and others see Thornton as a voice of integrity and experience and “someone we would be honored to learn from and partner with in this work.”
He and others tick off some of their top issues: boosting academic performance, improving employee pay, reducing class sizes, improving maintenance of school facilities.
“It is a tragedy that the lowest-performing schools today were low-performing 20 years ago, and nothing has changed,” Burroughs said. “We are going to be laser-focused on fixing them.”
Some on the board say it is not all about age.
Belinda Queen – a mother, stepmother, foster mother and grandmother – said people don’t have to be the same age to be like-minded. She is 56 and allied with Burroughs, Murray, Ahmed and Thomas, she said. “I’m in tune with that generation,” she said.
Another exception is Alexander Wallace, a millennial who started on the board as an appointee, was elected in 2016 and has often voted with the board majority. He said that while he agrees on some issues raised by his board-member counterparts in their 20s, he has not agreed with some of their tactics.
“They want a response instantaneously,” Wallace, 27, said. “I do, too. But I also know I’m on a governing body, and I have to work through proper procedures.”
Wallace said the Burroughs bloc took problems to the media or to Gov. Larry Hogan, R, when they could have been handled by the school system.
“The progression of the school system would have been light-years ahead of where we are if we had been one cohesive board,” he said.
Former board chairman Segun Eubanks said that while the board benefits from youth, it needs diversity.
“It’s important to have a balance – youthful energy and experience,” Eubanks said.
Although Eubanks was at odds with some of the board’s millennial members – especially Burroughs – he said he hoped the group would bring energy and innovation in years to come.
“I hope they just don’t bring critiques of the system but also support and ideas and positive change,” he said.