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FUSD Student Voices on the School Board

Towards the end of the school year, SURF was looking to recruit next year's representatives. SURFBoardE is a coalition of student representatives from FUSD's high schools that has the authority to vote on School Board decisions—essentially having the power to forward initiatives and vote on how the district should allot their budget.

Illustrated by Ku Li


By Lucy Yao, Nanki Kaur, Faith Qiao, Catherine Qin

 

Footsteps echo across the vast room, reaching the ears of the board members, the audience, and those at home watching. A single speaker approaches the lone microphone in front of the ivory panel. The board members of Fremont Unified School District gaze down menacingly with their pens poised. The rest of the speakers nervously go over their speeches again. The audience holds their breath. And the speaker begins.


At every school board meeting, people are given a chance to sign up for a public comment and project their own thoughts about what’s going on. Whether it be increased salary for teachers or mental health days for students, the general idea is that the more people who advocate, the more likely there is to be change. However, students are instead given this opportunity though a group of student representatives called SURFBoardE. The opportunity for public comments is still there, but generally speaking, SURFBoardE serves as the official voice at a district level. They are responsible for bringing up student issues and ensuring that the district properly addresses them—only they don’t.


Despite meeting up twice a month and having a direct line to the district Board of Education, only a handful of issues have been addressed. Even when there are resolutions passed, school life is essentially the same. Nobody notices these new changes, or even hears about it for weeks. If SURFBoardE is supposed to be representative of the entire student body, then how are the students’ concerns expected to be properly addressed?


There are 6 million students in California and more than 5,000 school board members and 950 school districts governing education in our state. Citizen oversight of local governments can be seen through school boards which are elected by their respective communities. These school boards play an important role in overseeing school districts and day-to-day operations of their schools.


Among their responsiblities, the school board “establishes systems and processes to monitor results, evaluates the school system’s progress toward accomplishing the district’s vision and communicates that progress to the local community.”


As students are impacted the most, the Fremont Unified School District established SURFBoardE, a student representative body of fifteen students with three representatives from each high school: American, Irvington, Kennedy, Mission, and Washington, along with an additional one from Robertson.


"SURFBoardE serves as a liaison between the 35,000 students of FUSD and the district's Board of Education." — FUSD School Board

To better grasp how SURFBoardE operates, we took to interviewing an upcoming representative (she chooses to stay anonymous for the purpose of this article).


The general goal is to inform the district of the students’ concerns, and construct positive change to the school community. To ensure they are representing the most diverse range of student opinions, SURF serves on various district committees to reach out as much as possible to as many groups as possible.


“All school board decisions affect the students, so it is essential that student voices are heard in the decision-making process,” She states. “Naturally, it is impossible for every student to speak at board meetings, so instead, SURF is responsible for representing all FUSD students to the best of our ability and ensuring that our opinions are being valued and made a priority.”


During SURF’s March 9th board meeting, four main topics were discussed: a new mask requirement, service hour requirement for high school students, adding to the English core novel list, and Mental Health Absence Days for students. While each topic reached some distinct conclusion, allowing students to get a valid absence in school due to any mental health illnesses particularly took a huge effort to get recognized and passed by the board.


According to one of the student representatives we interviewed (introduce later), SURF saw that “ under the California Education Code, authorized absences were okay under illnesses. [They] argued that mental health struggles should also be considered going under that illness umbrella."


However, even after the topic was brought up to multiple superintendents, it was continuously pushed off. Sissi, the upcoming Chair Person of SURF said that the "initiative started back in around 2020 when the student board member from two years ago, Zayaan Khan, noticed that other districts were implementing excused mental health days as well. Then, SB-14, which is a bill to allow students to have excused absences, was approved by Governor Newsom in October of 2021. The bill being passed on a state level also made it easier for the mental health resolution to be agendized and passed at the FUSD Board of Education. This is because many California bills related to education are local control, meaning that it is up to local school boards to pass the same policies once it has been passed on the state level."


“There was all talk, and didn’t seem to be much happening." It took more than just SURF’s voice, but also the voices of students, to finally get the attention of the board.


Zayaan Khan first developed a document outlining the specific details of the resolution, along with reasons as to why this is viable. Since students were already taking days off, the impact wasn't apparent and the act seemed redundant. So a key part of their argument was the "limit to the number that you can take in a year" that only made room for physical health ailments.


It ultimately took the collective testimonies of all SURF members and the engagement of students throughout the district to get the agenda item passed.


Even so, the fact that this case has taken over two years to pass has only made it clear that while SURF possesses the ability to suggest changes, they don't really do it. The student group takes input from the schools, discusses it, and its chairperson, acting as SURF’s representative, brings up the concern to the school board. Only when enough students push for the issue does the choice actually get passed unless of course it was a preexisting agenda item. Evidently, SURFBoardE serves as more of a “suggestive force” and disappointingly, has little influence over the decisions made by the school board of education. "One area that could be improved is definitely how much of a say we have in things.”


“[An] area that always has room for improvement is the publicity of the decisions and updates that are being made” — Anonymous

For instance, of the 35,431 students attending FUSD schools, they only have 929 Facebook followers and 517 Instagram followers. The ratio of the number of followers to the number of students there are in the Fremont school district is incredibly out of proportion, similar to how these fifteen student representatives are supposed to represent the 35,000 students, when in reality, this only adequately expresses the opinions of those few hundred that are following.


The people that are supposed to have input on these topics like what new novels should be added to their English reading list are not even aware this was a topic being discussed. Most importantly, the one time when the board was prioritizing students’ mental health, and finally looking into the mental health days, the students were not made to care enough to take a stance on it. All in all, if more effort is put into publicizing SURF, it will make a huge difference in spreading the much-needed recognition to their targeted audience.


In addition to the lack of awareness, there are also some internal disputes. The process of applying for a position has become undemocratic, as mentioned by Dianne Jones, the President of the Board of Education. Applications are open to everyone in the district. But, there are very few publicity efforts put in to promote and inform students about the ongoing election.


SURF understands student opinions through “casual surveying” or “one-on-one” conversations which limits the perspectives influencing the board’s vote. This lack of input from the larger student population can inevitably cause the “suggestive force” that is SURFBoardE to bring up only a few of the many potential concerns students may have to the board.


There are only a handful of people that know this is happening mainly because of their personal connection with current representatives. This is similar to our interviewee’s experience who stated “[They] had a mentor who was also involved in SURF, [and] inspired [them] to apply in the first place.” Similar to the interviewee, many students who apply have some sort of connection with former SURF members. The connections personally inspire these students to apply, while people who are not well aware do not even take it into consideration.


As a result, the election process is confined in its own little bubble. Like-minded people are chosen every year, leaving little to no room for other student voices to be heard at the district level. Even if there does seem to be a diversity within the choosings, information about SURF is restricted to the same group of people leaving no chance for varied peoples.


On the contrary, some argue that a more democratic process can create new issues. Unqualified and unpassionate candidates began taking charge as the election became more of a popularity contest, than “whoever is more qualified gets the position.”


Morning announcements and assemblies can be made regarding what new policies have passed, or what it takes to apply for a position on the board. Many of us first heard of the board when they were recruiting members via school announcements and newsletters. To this end, Sissi said that "while there might be too many agenda items at each board meeting to update in one announcement, [they] do try to occasionally talk about important items (ex. ones that relate to mental health) during daily announcements."


Additionally, mass emails can be utilized to inform of policies throughout the district to parents, educators, and most importantly, students. And of course, these are only some potential methods the board can consider. In the end, it is crucial for SURF to use efficient and effective ways, beyond just Facebook and Instagram, to reach their entire student community.


Cici also said that SURF is constantly finding ways to engage students in Board decisions, so "so look out for SURF Maze Day booths, FLEX/lunch events, open SURF meetings, and more!"


In the meantime, all meeting agendas are updated on their instagram and are always available on the FUSD board website. Public comments are heavily encouraged, and reaching out to board representatives to share your proposals is also an option.


 

Editor's Note:


This article was first written in early June and a lot of details were cut to make sure that things were precise. We had the chance to interview two members of SURF. One was Sissi Zhang, she's the upcoming chair person of SURF, and also an upcoming member that chooses to remain anonymous. They've shared a lot in terms of their own experience. If you want to see Sissi's direct responses, check out this document. — Faith Qiao



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