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Washington County school board discusses graduation speakers

Two of three members on the board's policy panel favor allowing valedictorians and salutatorians right of first refusal to speak at ceremonies

July 23, 2013|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com

Two of three Washington County Board of Education members who sit on the board’s Policy Committee said Tuesday that they favor allowing a high school valedictorian and salutatorian to have the right of first refusal when it comes to deciding which students speak at graduation ceremonies.

However, the committee wants to hear from the board’s student representative before making a recommendation to the seven-member school board.

Policy Committee Chairwoman Jacqueline Fischer said she would ask student board member  Jessan Groenendyk to speak informally to some other Student Government Association members to get feedback he can bring to the Policy Committee’s Aug. 27 meeting.

The issue arose when someone complained to the county schools superintendent about the valedictorian at Washington County Technical High School not having the automatic right to speak at that school’s graduation.

The technical high school has had a policy for several years in which the top six academic students can audition to speak at graduation, Principal Jeff Stouffer has said.

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Three family members of Tech High’s valedictorian, Bethany Magner, and a retired teacher attended the committee meeting Tuesday to voice their support for the tradition of allowing the valedictorian and salutatorian to speak at the graduation ceremony.

“It was very upsetting because she worked 12 years to earn that,” said Magner’s mother, Kendra Magner.

Gloria French, who was a teacher for 35 years, said letting the valedictorian speak at graduation goes back to before she graduated from high school.

“It has always been a tradition. Now doesn’t that have any place in our life anymore?” French asked.

Magner’s grandfather, Richard Magner, said a “grave injustice” was done to his granddaughter.

“I don’t want to see that happen to future students,” he said.

Richard Magner said he wanted to see a countywide policy giving valedictorians and salutatorians first refusal in the future.

Fischer and board member Karen Harshman said they think the valedictorian and salutatorian should have the right to speak at graduation. If one or both students don’t want to speak, a system can be devised to determine which students will, they said.

Board President Justin Hartings has said he was open-minded about the issue, but he was hesitant to mandate how schools should handle their graduations because they have their own traditions.

In a telephone interview after the meeting, Hartings said that was still his position, but he wanted to hear from Groenendyk. Groenendyk’s feedback might not determine his position,  but it will be an important consideration for him, Hartings said.

The Policy Committee also briefly discussed the issue of how valedictorians and salutatorians are determined, including the cutoff period for the grades to be considered in determining the top students of the class.

Harshman said she thought most students understood the cutoff was the next-to-last marking period.

Hartings said if the grade-point-average rankings change in the last marking period, then the honor is not being given to the actual top two students.

Fischer said if schools wait until final grades come in, there wouldn’t be a lot of time for students to prepare speeches, or to determine substitute speakers if the valedictorian or salutatorian don’t want to speak.

The committee put the issue of which grades to consider aside until it could first settle whether to have a countywide policy regarding graduation speakers.

If the committee decides on a recommendation at its August meeting, a policy could be considered at the school board’s Sept. 3 meeting, with consideration for final approval at its Sept. 17 meeting, Hartings said.

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