In Md., 3 college students vie for spots on school board

Supporters of Raaheela Ahmed for the Prince George's County school board.
Raaheela Ahmed
Supporters of Raaheela Ahmed for the Prince George's County school board.
Raaheela Ahmed

With presidential primaries in Maryland, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, most political observers will be be turning their attention to the ongoing battle for the Republican presidential nomination.

But in Prince George's County, Maryland, there's another race worth keeping an eye on: Edward Burroughs, David Murray, and Raaheela Ahmed are not yet old enough to drink alcohol, but on Tuesday, the three will be competing against people often more than twice their age for seats on the county's school board.

Ahmed, an 18-year-old college student from Bowie, Maryland, will be taking on incumbent Jeana Jacobs, 44, the school board chairman, to represent District 5. Meanwhile, 19-year-old Burroughs, who was first elected in 2010 and is running as an incumbent, will be running for re-election in District 8. Murray, a 20-year-old who narrowly lost his first bid in 2010, is running in an open seat in District 1.

From the perspective of the young candidates, their presence on the board would serve as a unique asset to it in its pursuit to improve conditions in Prince George's County schools. Particularly because all three of them recently graduated from one.

In an interview with Hotsheet, Burroughs argued that he, Ahmed and Murray could help close what he described as a "disconnect" between the makeup of the school board and the audience it aims to assist.

"We have to have members of the board who know what's going on inside the schools. There's a disconnect," he said. Burroughs argues that as someone who recently started attending college himself, he is better equipped than many to help young people in the pursuit of higher education.

"It's important to have a diverse group of people," he said. "We just add to that diversity."

Ahmed argues that as someone who came up through the school system, she understands the impact the school board's decisions will have on students.

"Every change that has been made within the school, I have felt the impact of those decisions. I understand how high-stakes a board member's decision can be," she said. "A lot of board members don't see that connection, or haven't felt that connection, so they don't take into account when making a decision."

Ken Laureys, who is serving as Ahmed's treasurer and has done some unofficial publicity on behalf of the three candidates, says the trio is committed to improving the county school system from the ground up. Their age, he argues, is a benefit - not a burden.

"Students are old enough to serve in the army, serve on a jury," he said. "Two of the incumbents [in the race] have made the point that, 'Oh, they're too young.' Maybe the better question to ask is, are they too old?"

"If you think about Democracy being of the people by the people for the people, you need to have students who are representing other students and who know what students need and what the schools need," Laureys continued. Ahmed, Burroughs and Murray, he said, "are going to know what the schools need now because they've been there."

Prince George's County has in recent years been particularly hard-hit by budget constraints and teacher shortages, according to a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Education. Academically, Prince George's County struggles to compete with high-performing neighboring counties like Montgomery county, which is consistently ranked among the nation's highest-achieving public school districts. 

Burroughs argued that the county's comparatively low rankings need to be improved - and that the board's status quo hasn't been sufficiently effective in prioritizing student achievement.

"I believe that the typical members have had their chance to show what they could do and they've done that," Burroughs said. "Student achievement matters most and we have to make difficult decisions."

If all three are elected, they will make up nearly half - 3 of 8 - spots on the board. There is also one spot reserved for a current member of high school.

Despite Burroughs' early entrance into politics, the University of Maryland student says he's not ready to commit to a life of politics just yet.

"I'm not 100 percent sure what I want to do as far as future political aspirations," he said. "This is a crazy business. We'll see how tomorrow goes."