Digging Deeper: Unearthing the Inner Workings of Democracy

By Annie Yang and Michelle Yang

In the late-May afterglow of post-AP bliss before the last spurt to finals week, new wallpaper adorns the halls in the form of posters, the Facebook campaign groups multiply, the speeches ring through the auditorium, and the votes are cast and counted. By the end of the month, the successors are elected and announced, the speeches are soon forgotten, the Facebook groups wither away, and the walls are stripped bare again. Student life returns to normal, and student government recedes into the background.
But what is student government doing behind the scenes? Many students don’t seem to know—or even care. Yet the apathy and cynicism conflict with the high 80% voter turnout, making for a confounding paradox.

The Stepping Stones to Change

While most students know of the student government board positions—president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer—few understand the process student government takes to achieve their goals.
Of course, with any goal, the first step is the idea. Student representatives, BCG representatives, Shared Decision Making representatives, and the board meet about once a month to discuss their ideas.

Student government, consisting of class, BCG, and Shared Decision Making representatives from all four grades, meets about once a month to share and discuss their ideas.

Photo taken by Emma Lu.

Thinking of the idea, however, may be the easiest step. Despite the perceptions of most students, student government does not just get to do “whatever it wants.” Everything that is done must go through the long, arduous process of getting approval by administration.
Ms. Jane Callaghan and Ms. Karen Cantor serve as the advisors of student government as well as the first gates through which student government’s’ ideas must pass through in their journey toward fruition. According to Ms. Callaghan, as advisors, their role is to oversee student government, basically “keeping them in check,” which involves making sure student government is focused, responsive, and communicative. “We’ll chime in when something is incorrect or unclear, but it’s student government…Our role is not to run student government, but to support and advise them,” Ms. Callaghan said. “Probably the biggest asset Ms. Cantor and I have is experience. We understand the needs of the students, we understand the role of the individual board members, [and] we understand the process. [Student government] can identify problems and [it] can have goals, but there’s a way to go about that, and that’s our job: to help advise.” Ms. Callaghan continually stressed that the roles of the advisors are minimal.
Nevertheless, the advisors remain an intrinsic part of student government. If the advisors approve student government’s proposal, then it is free to move higher up for administrative consideration. However, if they object, then it is either abandoning the idea or or going back to the drawing board, revising, compromising, then returning to the advisors for reconsideration. This pattern of approval or revision continues every step of the way. “It’s a lot of meetings, and it’s a lot of collaboration with superiors,” said past treasurer and current president, senior Tina Pavlovich.

Cartoon by Melody Yang.

So in a sense, student government is not purely student run. Inherently wedded to administration, student government operates with one hand tied. Of course, limits exist for logical reasons: propriety, budgets, feasibility. “We have a lot of—I hate to say it—adults we have to go through. So we had to go through our superiors…our advisors, administrators…That was one of our hardest [tasks], to get everyone…supporting us,” said Pavlovich. This proved especially true regarding Wi-Fi. However, despite limitations, student government does hold a power in choosing which ideas to pursue and how hard to pursue them.

The Elect Reflect

This past 2014-2015 school year, student government was led by alumni Melora Chang as president, Alana Farkas as vice president, Jacob Rigos as secretary, and Pavlovich as treasurer.
By general consensus, the board felt this year was successful, with Wi-Fi being the biggest achievement.
Wi-Fi had been a goal since 2012, when alumnus Zak Malamed was president. At the time, student government’s three main goals had been student emails, improved transportation, and Wi-fi. Student emails were achieved two years ago under the presidency of alumna Lelina Chang, and last year, student government was able to accomplish the two other goals.
Following the process, student government first spoke to their advisors about Wi-Fi. Once they gained their advisors’ approval, they contacted North’s student government and met to discuss how to approach Mr. Marc Epstein, the district technology director. Between the multitudes of email exchanges and meetings, the board members conducted research on Wi-Fi. Together, they thought of reasons why the administration would object to Wi-Fi then planned counterarguments. “We wanted to come into the meeting with Mr. Epstein the most prepared we could be because we knew from previous boards…that he was hard to persuade,” said Pavlovich. Pavlovich, then a treasurer, personally researched many Wi-Fi plans, putting together packets of articles and looking into the budget allocations.
Initially, student government’s goal had been to get Wi-Fi for the entire school. But upon meeting with Mr. Epstein, student government was told that this would be unfeasible for a multitude of reasons, one of which was funding. However, student government did not stop there. “We kept on pushing. We didn’t stop when we got a ‘no,’” Pavlovich said.
The eventual success of Wi-Fi can partly be contributed to student government’s willingness to compromise. “It wasn’t that [Mr. Epstein] was shocked—but he was wowed by how much we prepared. Mr. Reader [the school librarian] told us afterwards that he [Mr. Epstein] was very proud of our board, how we talked to [Mr. Epstein], and didn’t fight him…we listened to his ideas, we compromised,” Pavlovich said.
Smaller scale projects include locker room and bathroom renovations, collections for charities like Eyes for Help, refurbished cafeteria couches, decreased overflow on after-school buses, increased volunteer opportunities, and a new library bookshelf for secondhand SAT and AP prep books.
It’s evident that student government accomplished a significant amount last year. However, even with all these achievements, why do students continue to inveigh the uselessness of student government?

The People’s Voice and the Voice of the People

Whether it be out of teenage cynicism, deserved criticism, or just plain ignorance, students generally hold a pessimistic view of student government. According to The Southerner-conducted survey with 145 participants, students were generally unconfident in student government and its capabilities, did not think candidates were being honest or genuine during their speeches, did not believe student government was capable of accomplishing the tasks it promised, and did not think student government was involved in their lives as students. Overall, students’ sentiments toward their representatives were doubtful at best and downright distrustful at worst.
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The Southerner provided seven statements and asked respondents to judge them on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being that they believed the statement was completely false and 5 being that they believed the statement was completely true. The data collected from five out of the seven questions produced rough bell-curves with 3 being the most popular response, indicating how ambivalent most students are toward student government.
However, the results for the evaluation of one statement produced results that deviated from the bell-curve and indicated significant cynicism. 32% of students believed the statement “I feel that student government is involved in my life as a student” was completely false, and another 32% chose the next closest answer, a 2 on the 1-5 scale. One respondent to The Southerner’s survey, echoing the sentiments of other respondents, said, “I think there should be times throughout the year [when] student government informs the student body of its accomplishments because for the most part students are unaware of what is being done.” For many students, the only time they hear about what student government has accomplished and what they hope to accomplish is at the end of the year during elections. For the rest of the year, transparency is low and radio silence is loud.
One of the trademarks of campaign season is the inundation of Facebook invitations to candidate groups. During the 2014-2015 campaign season, then-junior Jonathan Schindler was one of the hundreds of students flooded by candidates reaching out on social media. “I got invited to like 20 different groups, all of them like ‘vote for me, vote for me, vote for me.’ And I was like, first of all why would I vote for you, who are you, all these things. And I thought, if people are just making random groups, why don’t I make a random group too?” Initially meant to be a joke, Schindler’s group became a statement against the apparent lack of substance and genuine goals for the school found in many candidates’ campaigns. “If you’re just running just to run and for nothing really, then don’t do it,” said Schindler.


Cartoon by Melody Yang

However, student government has an obviously different impression of itself. The 2014-2015 student government board uniformly believed they accomplished a lot, especially when it came to Wi-Fi. Last year’s vice president Farkas said, “It was extremely rewarding to see that after all of our hard work, we accomplished our main goal. It truly reminded me that if you want something so badly, and you are willing to fight for it, we can accomplish anything.” Last year’s board also believed their successors too would be able to make positive change for the school.
One of the harshest criticisms of student government is that it is merely a popularity contest and that people who have the most connections and the most friends win. The Southerner asked students to evaluate the statement “Elections are popularity contests,” and 49% of respondents believed the statement was completely true. This was the second set of results that showed marked distrust of student government. However, current treasurer Aram Baghdassarian believes the “popularity contest” phrase is a just buzzword that people automatically agree with. “But once [students] had to [determine]why they chose their candidate, they had to think about their individual choice and not just [subscribe to] some phrase was thrown around,” said Baghdassarian.

Cartoon by Melody Yang.

Pavlovich also addressed criticisms that people who run for student government run only for selfish reasons. “I do actually care. I’m not just doing it for college or the college recommendation. I actually do want students to be happy and see that student government can do stuff. It’s not just people who sit on the board and do nothing.” Indeed, all of the elected student government officials share this desire and drive to help students and improve their quality of life at school.
Pavlovich further defended student government against accusations of being a do-nothing organization. “I know some…students say that we don’t really do anything, but if you look at how hard it is to achieve stuff and how much effort we put into it, and if you are on board, you see how much work it takes and how much we have accomplished. I hope this year we get to accomplish even more so that students can say ‘yes, student government has done stuff.”
The polarity in perceptions then reveals the true problem that lies neither wholly with student government nor with the student body, but partly in both: a lack of communication. As such, it makes sense that to restore conversation, both student government and the student body must take part. Student government has the responsibility of updating the student body with what it has been doing. It must also remember to keep in touch with the people, for a board of five cannot represent the views of the whole. However, while student government holds the responsibility to inform, the student body also has the obligation to stay aware. Criticism should not be made out of self-ignorance nor for the sake of criticism itself. Instead, it should be made with constructive intent. In addition, students should realize that they too have a voice, and by refusing to speak, they are contributing to the out-of-sync relationship between the people and its voice.

The Leaders of the Next Generation

The 2015-2016 student government board consists of senior Pavlovich as president, senior Azim Keshwani as vice president, junior Haley Raphael as secretary, and junior Baghdassarian as treasurer.
Although the school year has only just started, student government officials have already put their money where their mouths are. Board members not only began to work on their goals almost immediately after they were elected but also actively reached out to their constituents.
Pavlovich spoke to assistant principal Mr. John Duggan last year about air conditioning. His response was “a bigger, ‘No,’ as in a bigger impossibility than Wi-Fi,” said Pavlovich. “But then he was saying at the end how we did achieve Wi-Fi…and how we had worked with central administration before, and how we can work with central administration again. He was saying how it was really hard, but he did put his support behind us.” Air conditioning will likely be a long-term goal unlikely to be accomplished this year. A referendum for the school budget is planned to take place in a few years, and so student government plans to try to push air conditioning into that budget then.
In addition, the Facebook group for student government leaders of Long Island that Baghdassarian envisioned has already been created. According to the group’s description, the group is meant to prevent “reinvent[ing] the wheel each year and brainstorm[ing] ideas that nearby schools may have had years ago.” For now, the focus is on Nassau County, but if enough schools in Nassau take part in the group, it will expand into Suffolk County too.
There have also been efforts to increase communication between student government and the student body. One of the first actions as the new administrators of the Great Neck South Student Body Facebook group was to pin to the top of the page the suggestion box, where students can submit suggestions, thoughts, or other ideas anonymously to student government. “We’re not the voice; we’re the mouthpiece,” Baghdassarian said, indicating that it is Ms. Callaghan’s phrase. “We don’t run the school…we’re just trying to represent you guys [the student body].” In fact, student government has already started to read suggestion box ideas, adding those to the list of goals they have for this year (confirmed by the writers of this article who had submitted a suggestion and have seen it appear on the list of goals for next year).
Student government also plans to post monthly updates about student government’s goals, their efforts to achieve them, and their accomplishments. Several posts have already been made in the Student Body Facebook group, including one by Pavlovich, listing the goals student government has and inviting feedback from the student body. Not simply an empty action, this invitation for input has fostered discussion among students of different grades.
However, the school year has only started, the list of goals is long, and there is only so much time. Student government may have ambition and optimism, but sometimes, those are not enough. “Everything in student government takes a lot longer than students realize,” said Raphael. “As high schoolers, we expect everything to happen at the blink of an eye, and as I’m learning through this, it takes a lot [more time]. You have to contact so many people before you get the tiniest thing done. So students, sorry, but we’ll try our best.”

The Big Four—From left to right, Treasurer Aram Baghdassarian, President Tina Pavlovich, Secretary Haley Raphael, and Vice President Azim Keshwani. The four board members preside over the meeting with the student government representatives, discussing goals and issues to pursue in the current school year.

Photo taken by Emma Lu

The State of the Union

Already, it is October. The last embers of summer have burnt out, but the torch has been passed, and student government has already started stoking the fires of change.
Much remains the same: Pavlovich, Keshwani, Raphael, and Bagdhassarian must travel on the same path that all previous student government boards walked. Not everything will work out, even with their ambition and optimism; the interests of the administration and the students will never align perfectly, and their term in office is only so long. Not only that, student government must also face the scrutiny of the student body. Who knows if cynicism is inherent in teenagers, but from the surveys conducted, it seems that students’ skepticism is more attributable to their unawareness of student government’s activities. Undoubtedly, student government has many obstacles and challenges laid before them.
However, last year, student government was able to achieve what used to be the unattainable—Wi-Fi—and this year’s board has already begun to tackle some of the goals on their to-do list as well as increase communication with the student body via Facebook. Where exactly student government will bring us this year remains an open question, and one that only student government can answer. So your move, SG.
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