MARANA, Ariz. (CN) — Hunter Holt spent his summer doing many of the things inbound college freshmen usually do — picking classes, making plans to move into a dorm and getting ready to leave the community where he grew up.
But over the summer Holt, 18, decided to take a detour.
A clash last fall with school administrators over a volleyball court convinced Holt that students’ voices weren’t being heard by the Marana Unified School District governing board. So he decided to run for a seat — and he won.
“It’s something I believe in,” said Holt, who graduated from Mountain View High School barely 90 days ago and will start on the board in January. “I don’t think what we’re doing is good enough for our students. I think it can always be better.”
Holt’s opening came when board member Suzanne Hopkins decided not to run for re-election. With three seats on the ballot, five people filed paperwork over the summer signaling intent to run.
Holt was to face incumbents Dan Post, a 30-year board veteran who works for his family’s local farm corporation, and Maribel Lopez, a K-8 school principal who has been on the Marana board eight years, along with two challengers.
But by the Aug. 2 deadline, only Holt and the incumbents had filed the required 307 voter signatures to get on the ballot. The election is now moot, and the county Elections Department canceled the vote.
“He really just kind of fell into it, because there was nobody else running,” said Tom Carlson, who has been on the board since 2010.
Holt rejects the idea that he got the seat by accident. Yes, he backed into the seat, but he would have run regardless of the number of candidates, he said.
Holt, who lives with his mother and whose grandfather was dean of the University of Arizona Pharmacy College, thinks the board — the president of which has been in office for 35 years — has become detached from the classroom.
“They can make you feel like you’re heard, but they don’t really understand where you’re coming from or what you’re saying, because they’re not in that situation,” he said.
Holt cites as an example a recent switch from A-through-F grading to a 1-4 scale, much like grade point averages. District guidelines for the new grades didn’t trickle down effectively to all teachers, so some were following the guidelines and some weren’t, Holt said.
Carlson met with Holt recently to guide him through some procedures and explain the monthly board agenda and associated packet, because he didn’t get the same orientation a decade ago.
“I came on in January, and really had no idea what I was doing or anything like that, and that was a pretty horrible feeling,” Carlson said.
He spent two years in junior high at a local BASIS charter school — among the top performing charter systems in the nation. He doesn’t want to overload Marana students with three hours of homework, pushing them several years ahead of their grade peers, the way he was at BASIS.
“That’s not how a kid’s brain processes,” he said. “That’s how you make kids go into depression. That’s how you make kids have suicidal thoughts.”
Holt wants to give students two “mental health days” per year, where they can just step away and breathe.
For now, Holt is studying to be an Emergency Medical Technician and taking online classes at Grand Canyon University. After January, he will commute to classes on campus in Phoenix, 100 miles to the north.
Kathryn Mikronis, 50, is a full-time mom with two teens in Marana High School. Her daughter, Jo, is a senior and son, Jimmy, a sophomore. She watches all board meetings online and ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2012 — the last time the community elected a new member.
Because Holt is a student at Grand Canyon University and has no kids in the district, Mikronis is afraid he won’t be accepted by other board members as a true stakeholder. She is hopeful his perspective will be a breath of fresh air to a board she described as a “good old boys” atmosphere.
Mikronis wants other board members to take Holt seriously, despite his age and lack of life experience.
“If the Marana school district did the job it was entrusted by the community to do, then Hunter can be a shining example” for other teens, she said.
As Covid-19 continues to kill almost 1,000 Americans daily and one University of Washington analysis recently projected up to 400,000 deaths by the end of the year, Holt will enter the board in trying times. The current board has been holding special meetings weekly to plot a course for the school year.
Carlson advocates bringing kids back as quickly as possible, but Mikronis isn’t so sure. Assuming a fatality rate of 0.2%, a number supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, risks the lives of 20 children.
“I don’t want my kid to be one of those 20,” Mikronis said. “I don’t want anyone’s kid to be one of those 20.”
Though incoming board members won’t be seated until January, Carlson plans to meet with Holt to discuss the pandemic and the district’s re-entry plan, he said.
“Our last several board meetings have been pretty lively, over the whole China virus, over the whole Covid-19,” he said.
The district is planning a full reopening Oct. 19 and might bring back some special needs kids, who suffer more without daily contact, sooner, Carlson said.
Holt is keeping close tabs on what the board decides.
“There’s very mixed emotions with Covid right now,” Holt said. “I do not think at all that we can bring students back without teachers saying they’re OK with bringing them back.”
Holt will be sworn in in December and will take a seat on the board at the first meeting in mid-January.