Shiva Rajbhandari does typical high school stuff. He is a varsity athlete, enjoys camping with his friends, and works part-time with the Idaho Conservation League.
But he also takes on noble duties, including a recent trip to Egypt to protest at the UN climate summit. And in September, he became the first student elected to the Boise School District Board of Trustees.
Her campaign focused on student representation in school leadership, mental health, teacher support and sustainability. Rajbhandari ousted incumbent Steve Schmidt and was the only non-incumbent candidate to be elected to the seven-member council.
“I’m in exactly the right place,” Rajbhandari said, while attending the Idaho School Boards Association’s annual convention in Coeur d’Alene alongside more than 500 adults.
The Boise student’s victory captured national attention, something Rajbhandari says was exciting but never the focus of his campaign.
“The coolest part of my tutelage wasn’t this election or the national news, but I heard from so many students that we hadn’t heard from before,” Rajbhandari said. “That’s what’s so great about having a student on the board and building this culture of empowerment. It’s contagious.
Rajbhandari wants to see more students get involved
Rajbhandari wants other students to know that serving on a school board is a real possibility.
“There’s nothing special about me,” Rajbhandari said, shouting at his campaign manager Ella Weber, a Boise High graduate and University of Idaho student, to whom he credits his electoral success. “Any student can serve on a school board and bring great value to the conversations they have about policy, facilities, and just about anything the board does.”
The position did not interfere with his academic, professional or social life, he said.
When people ask him how he manages to be an administrator and a student, Rajbhandari points to board chairman Dave Wagers, who runs the multimillion-dollar Idaho Candy Company, and administrator Beth Oppenheimer, who runs the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children.
“People keep asking me, ‘How are you supposed to do this as a student?’ said Rajbhandari. “It’s like, how are you supposed to do this with a full-time job and as a community leader, like all the other administrators? It’s nothing different.
But Rajbhandari’s age poses some uncertainty for the council’s future.
The eldest wants to attend an out-of-state college after graduating next spring. He is expected to step down, leaving the remaining directors responsible for appointing a new board member.
Rajbhandari hopes they will appoint a student to replace him.
“I love Idaho and all the people here, but the fact is that our leaders don’t prioritize public education enough here and I’ll have better opportunities elsewhere,” Rajbhandari said. “As I have said since the beginning of my campaign, I plan to be replaced by a student from the Boise school board next school year.”
Rajbhandari wants other school boards in the state to include students’ opinions in their decisions.
Creating student councils, creating student council positions or supporting student election campaigns would amplify the voices of the biggest players in the education system, he said. “Any student can do it.”
He’s more inspired than ever after his first few months on the board
Throughout his campaign, Rajbhandari has focused on the benefits to the school board of having a student trustee.
After being elected, he hoped to be able to keep his promise.
“At first I was a little worried, after selling a student to the school board for so long during my election, that I might not be able to make a difference,” he said. “But I got it. To be able to bring perspective on politics and how it really affects students is really valuable.
Now, after his first two months, Rajbhandari says he is more inspired than ever.
He has been appointed to the district’s governance committee and hears feedback from students and teachers at the school that he can incorporate into policy discussions. The district has always had the opportunity for students to provide feedback, Rajbhandari said, but now that they have a representative on the board, more students understand that their feedback will be taken seriously.
Rajbhandari saw his fellow board members – Beth Oppenheimer, Elizabeth Langley, Andy Hawes, Nancy Gregory, Maria Greeley and Dave Wagers – read every email they receive and consider every aspect of an issue before to make a decision.
They really care about the students in the district, he said.
Additionally, they helped mentor him at the start of his tutelage and teach him how to lead in a new way.
Leading up to the election, the student activist confidently drew on his leadership experience in student government, community organizing, and legislative advocacy to carry him through.
But the transition from activist to elected official presented the most challenges, he said. His position on the school board teaches him to lead in a different way.
“I came into this role as an activist…fighting for climate justice, social justice, gun violence prevention and voting rights, that sort of thing.” he said. “But working within the system is very different…It was hard for me to get into that mindset…but the way we do things in the Boise School District is really the right way. to develop policies.”
His campaign thrusts – mental health, climate action and support for teachers – have not changed since he was sworn in. But doesn’t see himself as a “one-issue” or “rogue” board member.
“I’m part of a team, and the board’s main role is accountability,” Rajbhandari said. “It’s about reviewing the expenses of our district, reviewing the performance of our superintendent and evaluating it on behalf of our community. We are trustees, the community trusts us to do so. But I can still do it and advance those political goals.
Wagers, chairman of the Boise School Board, says Rajbhandari is growing with the rest of the trustees.
Each Boise trustee comes to the board with a unique perspective and has their own role in leading the district, Wagers said, and Rajbhandari’s perspective as a student has “added to the conversation.”
Nancy Gregory, a longtime Boise administrator, thinks Rajbhandari’s biggest challenge has been planning, but says he’s an active participant on the board.
“He’s very caring,” Gregory said. “I sit with him on the policy committee and he’s really good at asking questions and digging deep, which is what we do on the policy committee… He participates. He’s one of the seven voices and contributes, and that’s great.
All Boise directors, including Rajbhandari, have taken training with the Idaho School Boards Association and attended the annual ISBA convention in Coeur d’Alene in November.
Rajbhandari urges school leaders to make room for students at district level
Rajbhandari stood out as the youngest of a sea of more than 500 administrators and school administrators at the Idaho School Boards Association’s annual convention last month.
Community engagement and fundraising workshops helped the high school student grow, he said. The sessions on the mental health crisis and building an inclusive school culture spoke to him both as a school counselor and as a student.
But the convention highlighted why Rajbhandari thinks district-level student representation is important.
He doesn’t believe administrators should be expected to know what students are going through. Their job is to represent taxpayers and community members, he said. But he thinks the most informed decisions about educational matters will happen when a student is involved.
So he wants to see more students at events like ISBA’s – not as speakers or in workshops, but in the crowd.
When talking to all ISBA members, people say, ‘Congratulations, that’s so cool’,” Rajbhandari said.
“Now is that really cool?” Because why not implement it? Register a student with your school board. It’s not that hard. There are so many resources. There are so many school districts where they have done this and it has worked. It’s not just here in Boise. I’m happy to tell anyone about it.
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