Shiva Rajbhandari does typical high school senior stuff. He’s a varsity athlete, enjoys camping with this friends and has a part-time job with the Idaho Conservation League.
But he also takes on lofty tasks, including a recent trip to Egypt to protest at the United Nations climate summit. And in September, he became the first student elected to the Boise School District’s board of trustees.
His campaign focused on student representation in school leadership, mental health, teacher support and sustainability. Rajbhandari unseated incumbent Steve Schmidt and was the only non-incumbent candidate to be elected to the seven-member board.
“I’m in exactly the right spot,” said Rajbhandari, while participating in the annual convention of the Idaho School Boards Association in Coeur d’Alene alongside more than 500 adults.
The Boise student’s win drew national attention, something Rajbhandari says has been exciting, but was never the focus of his campaign.
“The coolest part of my trusteeship has not been this election or national news, but it’s been hearing from so many students that previously weren’t heard from,” said Rajbhandari. “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 out his campaign manager Ella Weber, a Boise High grad and student at the University of Idaho, who he credits for his election success. “Any student can serve on a school board and really bring a lot of value to the conversations that they’re having about policy, about facilities and really just about everything the board does.”
The position hasn’t interfered with his academic, work or social life, he said.
When people ask how he manages being a trustee and a student, Rajbhandari points to board president Dave Wagers, who runs the multimillion-dollar Idaho Candy Company, and trustee Beth Oppenheimer, who directs the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children.
“People keep asking me, ‘How are you supposed to do this as a student?'” Rajbhandari said. “It’s like, how are you supposed to do this with a full-time job and as a community leader, like every other trustee? It’s nothing different.”
But Rajbhandari’s age poses some uncertainty for the future of the board.
The senior wants to attend an out-of-state college following his graduation next spring. He’d have to vacate his position, leaving the remaining trustees responsible for appointing a new board member.
Rajbhandari hopes they’ll instate a student as his replacement.
“I love Idaho and all the people here, but the fact is that our leaders do not prioritize public education enough here and I will have better opportunities elsewhere,” Rajbhandari said. “As I’ve said since the start of my campaign, I plan to be replaced by a student on the Boise school board at the start of next school year.”
Rajbhandari wants other school boards across the state to include student opinions in their decisions.
Establishing student committees, creating student board positions, or supporting student electoral campaigns would amplify the voices of the biggest stakeholders in the education system, he said. “Any student can do this.”
He’s more inspired than ever after his first months on the board
Throughout his campaign, Rajbhandari zeroed in on how the school board would benefit from having a student trustee.
After he was elected, he hoped he could deliver on his promise.
“At first, I was a little worried, after selling having a student on the school board for so long during my election, that maybe I wouldn’t be able to make a difference,” he said. “But I got that exactly right. Being able to bring a perspective on policy and how that’s really affecting students is really valuable.”
Now, after his first three months, Rajbhandari says he’s more inspired than ever.
He was appointed to the district’s governance committee, and hears feedback from students and teachers at school that he can carry into policy discussions. The district always had an avenue for students to provide feedback, said Rajbhandari, but now that they have a representative on the board, more students understand that their feedback will be taken seriously.
Rajbhandari has seen his fellow board members — Wagers, Oppenheimer, Elizabeth Langley, Andy Hawes, Nancy Gregory and Maria Greeley — read every email they get, and consider all sides of an issue before making a decision.
They really care about the students in the district, he said.
Plus, they’ve helped mentor him in his early trusteeship, and are teaching him to lead in a new way.
Going into the election, the student activist confidently relied on his leadership experience in student government, community organizing and legislative advocacy to carry him through.
But transitioning from an activist to an elected official has brought up the most challenges, he said. His position on the school board is teaching him to lead in a different way.
“I got into this role as an activist…fighting for climate justice, social justice, gun violence prevention and voting rights, that kind of thing.” he said. “But working within the system is very different…It’s been challenging for me to get into that mindset…but the way that we’re doing things in the Boise School District is really the right way to make policy.”
His campaign focus points – mental health, climate action and teacher support — haven’t changed since his swearing in. But doesn’t consider himself a “single-issue” or “rogue” board member.
“I’m part of a team, and the board’s primary role is accountability,” said Rajbhandari. “It’s looking at our district’s expenditures, looking at our superintendent’s performance and evaluating that on behalf of our community. We’re trustees, we’re trusted by the community to do that. But I can still do that and further these policy goals.”
Wagers, president of the Boise School Board, says Rajbhandari is growing along with the rest of the trustees.
Every Boise trustee comes to the board with a unique perspective and has their own role in leading the district, said Wagers, and Rajbhandari’s perspective as a student has “added to the conversation.”
Longtime Boise trustee Nancy Gregory thinks Rajbhandari’s biggest challenge has been scheduling, but says he’s an active participant on the board.
“He’s very thoughtful,” Gregory said. “I serve on the policy committee with him and he is really good at asking questions and digging deep, which is what we do on the policy committee…He’s participating. He’s one of seven voices and is contributing, and that’s great.”
All the Boise trustees, including Rajbhandari, have attended trainings with the Idaho School Boards Association, and participated in the annual ISBA convention in Coeur d’Alene in November.
Rajbhandari urges school leaders to make space for students at the district level
Rajbhandari stood out as the youngest in a sea of over 500 school administrators and trustees at the Idaho School Boards Association’s annual convention last month.
Workshops on community engagement and funding helped the high schooler grow, he said. Sessions on the mental health crisis and building an inclusive school culture spoke to him both as a trustee, and as a student.
But the convention highlighted why Rajbhandari believes student representation at the district level is important.
He doesn’t believe trustees should be expected to know what students are experiencing. Their job is to represent taxpayers and community members, he said. But he believes the most informed decisions on topics of education will happen when a student is involved.
So, he wants to see more students at events like the ISBA’s — not as speakers or in workshops, but in the crowd.
“Talking to all the ISBA members, people are like, ‘Congratulations, that’s so cool,'” Rajbhandari said.
“Now, is it really cool? Because why don’t you implement it? Get a student on your school board. It’s not that hard. There’s so many resources. There’s so many school districts where they’ve done it and it’s worked. It’s not just here in Boise. I’m happy to talk to anyone about that.”