In May and August 2019, the senior class had to vote four different times to determine a Senior Class President. These numerous elections, all marred by administrative and structural issues, exemplify the greater organizational and functional issues at work in Forum, the upper school’s student governing body.
The Forum constitution lists its purpose to be “deal[ing] with issues that rise out of the day-to-day school life.” Forum faculty Co-Chair Ben Cady echoes this sentiment, saying “The purpose of Forum is to be the voice of the students…If students are unhappy about something, then hopefully Forum can do their best to make things better.”
In April 2019, Flora Yang ‘20 was announced as 2020 Class President. However, it was brought to the attention of the faculty that there were errors in the process by which the votes were received. After four more elections, Rosa Gerdts ‘20 was elected as 2020 Class President.
“We’ve sort of inherited this constitution that is not very specific in how elections should be run, which has allowed for human error to occur throughout these election processes” explains Student Body President and Co-Chair of Forum Joe Gustaferro ‘20. Elections are resolved through rank choice voting. As an example, let’s take a theoretical Forum election with three candidates. If a voter places candidate A in third place, they get three points. If candidate B is placed in first they get one point. In the end, the candidate that wins has the fewest points, meaning the winner is whoever is disliked the least rather than liked the most. Yet, the constitution does not specify a format for how this rank choice voting should occur in elections, resulting in large variation and confusion over the years.
Gerdts believes that the transition to electronic voting has contributed to this variation, as well as the fluctuation of faculty involvement in elections. Faculty representatives are elected every year, two selected by the student body and two by the faculty.
The spring Forum elections were administered almost completely by student representatives, some of whom were running in the election. “Obviously we had a lot of technical difficulties and miscommunication about how the ballot should work electronically, and that’s when I feel like administration felt like they should step in more,” Gerdts explains. Fall elections were moved to paper ballots and controlled entirely by faculty in an effort to prevent further oversights and mistakes, as 2020 grade dean Mike Canfield explained in an early fall grade meeting was the cause of the multiple reelections.
Amidst the constant turnover in membership as well as variations in process, there does seem to be one element of continuity between year to year: the lack of transparency. 2020 Forum representative Charlie Nowak ‘20 explains that “There’s no transparency for who counts [the votes] how they’re counted, you can’t see the form, so there’s really no way of knowing what’s right.” Confusion about vote tallying abounds within Forum as well, as evidenced by the incorrect vote tallying that resulted in the runoff election between Yang and Gerdts on August 22.
As a result of this oversight and the consequent repeat elections, cynicism became a norm to accompany discussion of Forum by students in the Class of 2020. Gustaferro recognizes it, but also sees an opportunity, explaining, “There for sure is cynicism… But what I did see out of it was that people were talking about Forum and that people did care. I am happy that people cared and were wondering what was happening. It shows that our students are involved and believe in Forum. They believe in what Forum could be.”
Forum is considering large constitutional and structural revisions in the coming year in response to these very public slip-ups. Currently, Forum is made up of three representatives from each grade, in addition to the Junior Class President, Senior Class President, and the Student Body President, who acts as a Co-Chair of the student government. Within the organization, the leadership roles of Chief Communications Officer and Chief Financial Officer also exist.
However, changes can’t only come from Forum members: rather, the student body also needs to contribute. Cady explains that “Anybody in the school can bring a possible amendment. It needs 50 signatures saying we would like this amended, it needs a majority vote in Forum, and then it goes to the students and needs a 2/3 majority vote from the students in order to amend.”
As Student Body President and Senior Class President, Gustaferro and Gerdts are more than ready to bring ideas. Gerdts explains that “All of these changes are propelled by understanding that our constitution is so vague. That was exemplified by this election. That propels you into making constructive and positive change.”
Gustaferro agrees, explaining, “[with] the lack of specificity in the constitution regarding the elections, we were bound to have a problem at some point. Now we have, and what that means is that we can create a culture within Forum that’s going to rub off on the lower classes by creating a more productive Forum…the work that Forum is doing will continue to get better and better.”