Shiva Rajbhandari, a senior at Boise High School in Idaho, was sworn in last month as a member of the Boise School District Board of Trustees, becoming the first student to serve on that city’s school board.
The 18-year-old won against an incumbent candidate with 56 percent of the votes in a special election last month . He joins a small number of students on school boards across the country with voting rights instead of serving in an advisory role.
Rajbhandari said his win should be an inspiration for students, reminding them that their voice matters especially when it comes to deciding the future of public education. His opponent, Steve Schmidt, was endorsed by some far-right groups including the Idaho Liberty Dogs, and Rajbhandari said he also wants his win to send a message that efforts like book bans are losing platforms.
But Schmidt predicted his former opponent will have much to learn on the job. “I think it will be a time for Shiva to realize that this isn’t a platform for activism,” Schmidt told the Idaho Statesman after the election.
Rajbhandari spoke with Education Week about his campaign, what his priorities are for his time on the board, and what he hopes students and teachers can take away from his new role.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What made you decide to run for a school board seat?
I’ve been involved in Idaho politics since 9th grade as a climate activist and community organizer. Through that, I really developed this sense of the value of student empowerment, that students really do deserve a voice at the table. And we really do have a lot to bring to the table when we’re given a seat.
I was working with students across the school district, as part of the Idaho Climate Justice League, for a clean energy commitment and long term sustainability plan for our district. We were pushing for that in the Boise school district and for about two years, we were reaching out to our trustees. We sent over 300 postcards, and we delivered the largest petition our school district had ever received. We were part of our district sustainability committee; we worked with the power company. And it just felt like our trustees didn’t have the time of day for us, which is frustrating.
That being said, trustees were going through a lot at the time across the country, with the pandemic, and far right attacks on our schools. But nevertheless, it felt like our district didn’t understand the value of student voice outside of the classroom. That really is what motivated me to start thinking about what would it look like to have a student on the school board. And how could I maybe help foster a culture of empowerment and really benefit our schools in the process?
How did you go about campaigning?
In May, I started talking to some friends about what it would look like to launch a campaign for the school board. And I filed with the secretary of state. That summer, I held a press conference and announced my candidacy. It got a lot of coverage. And then donations really started pouring in from the community. I was just so humbled by all the support I received from my peers, from my friends who volunteered endlessly for my campaign, but also just from strangers who chipped in 10 or 20 bucks. When it was all said and done, we raised over $10,000, and it was all from grassroots donors. Our average donation amount was $38.
We started knocking on doors. We were able to pay 16 door knockers to go out and knock on over 5,000 doors in the month of August. And we knocked, I think, 3,000 doors, right over Labor Day weekend leading up to the election, which we won by just over 2,000 votes. I also reached out to community leaders, my city council member, another city council member, a longtime advocate against extremism here in Idaho, and several representatives to get their endorsements, which I was so honored to receive.
What do you hope to accomplish in your new role?
I think my primary role on the school board is to serve as an example of just how much students can bring to the table when we’re given a seat. And I think it’s about setting a precedent for student involvement in government, both on the school board in Boise and nationwide.
Students belong in all places where decisions are made, but particularly where decisions are made on education. I’m the only trustee who’s been in a Boise public school as a student in over 20 years. So I understand what my peers are going through. I understand the struggles that our schools are facing. And I am more available to students and to teachers and to our community members.
What I noticed in our schools and what I heard over and over again, from constituents, from students were three things. Mental health is my number one priority. Across the country, there is a mental health crisis in our schools. When students are literally dying in our schools, when we have a learning environment that is not supporting learning, we have to make mental health a priority. We need to hire more counselors, we need to hire more mental health support staff, we need to train teachers on how to address mental health in our schools. We need to talk about mental health every day, in every way so that students feel comfortable sharing that and fostering that learning environment, because it really is a culture thing.
The next thing is supporting our teachers. Right now, across the country, we’re seeing these very high profile attacks on public schools. And Idaho is really kind of the center of that conversation. Idaho is a testing ground for extremism. And in the last two years we’ve seen allegations of indoctrination in our schools, we’ve seen completely unfounded allegations of grooming, targeting the most marginalized students and the most marginalized teachers in our schools, with baseless things. It is so imperative that we stand up for our schools, and this is something that I’ve heard from teachers and students across the district and actually across the state, is that this kind of rhetoric is making teachers not want to teach, and it is changing what we’re learning in the classroom.
And then the third thing that I hear from students, and that is also very personal for me, is climate action. Energy is our second largest expenditure in the Boise school district. And our schools really are the cornerstones of our democracy and of our government. So leading the way in the transition away from fossil fuels has to start with our schools.
What lessons should students and teachers take from your journey?
I hope that students around the country know that our voices matter and that we can make a difference in our communities when we work together. They’ll tell us that we’re too young, or we don’t know what we’re talking about. Or that we need to slow down and listen to the people in power. And they’re lying. Our voices are so powerful. They’re scared of what happens when we organize and when we win. And I hope that my trusteeship really achieves student representation and really starts getting governments around the world to consider what happens when we give students a chance to make decisions about our schools.
I hope that teachers understand that they are the foundation of our democracy, and that they really hold so much power in shaping the future leaders of our world. I wouldn’t be anywhere without public schools. And I hope that they know just how grateful and how lucky we are to have teachers in this world, because they really shape everything.
A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as An Idaho Student Won a School Board Seat. He Has a Message for Students Everywhere