Program gets kids thinking locally first

By: Terry Oparka | Troy Times | Published April 24, 2013

Athens High School student Kurt Leverenz didn’t know someone could serve on a board or commission in Troy at age 18.

“I didn’t know there was a kid on the Liquor Advisory Committee,” he said.

He and about 50 students from Niles Community, Athens and Troy high schools and International Academy East attended the Get Gov program in Troy City Council chambers at City Hall April 18 after school. The Friends of the Troy Public Library, the Troy School District and the League of Women Voters, Troy Area, sponsored the panel discussion.

Students submitted questions beforehand for local officials to answer at the discussion. City Assessor Nino Licari, City Clerk Aileen Bittner, former interim City Manager Michael Culpepper, former Mayor and Council member Jeanne Stine, and former council members Robin Beltrami and Mary Kerwin, who also served as president of the Troy School District Board of Education, answered questions. The questions ran the gamut, from the city’s form of government to ethics, the city charter and the rules of elections.

As part of the program, video students at Athens High School filmed man-on-the-street videos of students posing questions to people at the library about local government.

For example, three people were asked what form of city government Troy has, and none of the three people featured in the video knew that Troy has a council-manager form of government. The people said it was partisan, and they thought the mayor had greater powers than other council members.

“The mayor has no veto power,” Stine said.

Rhonda Hendrickson, president of the Friends of the Troy Public Library, said the purpose of the event was to produce a program that teaches students the facts about their local government. Organizers wanted to build an interest in civic issues and create a program that could be added to the high school curriculum.

Hendrickson approached Board of Education Trustee Ida Edmunds with the idea, and Superintendent Barbara Fowler gave the project the green light.

“Kids know more about federal and state politics,” said Rich Machesky, assistant superintendent of secondary education for the Troy School District. “We want students to think locally first. It’s the last thing you talk about in civics classes. This is a way to get them involved.”

“The nice thing is that, once presented and edited, the schools can use (the program),” he said. The program will be edited to include student questions that they didn’t have time to ask the panel during the taping April 18.

Licari told the students that Troy is one of the largest communities in the state by property value.

On the video, all of the people filmed thought that the city of Troy also ran the Troy School District, which Kerwin explained is not the case.

“The board sets the vision for the district, sets up the structure and hires and evaluates the superintendent and passes the budget, which must balance,” Kerwin said. “The superintendent is responsible for oversight, day-to-day operations, management of the district. The superintendent implements all board policies.”

She added that the annual salary for trustees of the Troy School District is $100 per year, and that it’s basically a part-time job.

No one featured on the video knew what the Troy City Clerk does.

“I’m not elected,” Bittner said. She explained that, in some municipalities, including Troy, the city clerk is appointed, then confirmed by the council. She said that in Troy’s population of about 80,000, there are about 56,000 registered voters.

Of those registered voters, about 25 percent cast ballots in local elections, compared to about 80 percent in presidential elections.

“It’s most important to vote in every election,” Bittner said. “Get educated.” She also encouraged the students to serve as election inspectors. “Make sure others who are eligible to register to vote register and get out and vote,” she said. She also encouraged the teens to post election information on social media, which has been proven to spur more voter participation. 

“Some turnouts are as low as 14 percent,” she said.

Stine said that some local elections in Troy have been decided by 200 votes.

“Seven percent (of registered voters) can elect someone,” Culpepper said. He added that the city would love to have the teens serve on the various boards and committees.

Beltramini said that young people lead the initiative for the city to construct a skate park.

“It’s not about money … it’s about stuff that needs to happen,” she said. She added that nonprofit organizations also welcome teen volunteers.

“My teacher asked me to be here,” Niles student Kyle Strilaov, 17, said of his participation in the forum. “It’s an incredible opportunity.”

Students who wish to volunteer to serve on a board or committee may download an application at Click government, then boards and committees.

The forum will be broadcasted on the city’s TV channel, WTRY Channel 10 on Wide Open West and Channel 17 on Comcast, in coming weeks. Call (248) 524-1147 for scheduled times.