Surfing the youth wave: Ben Bowman is youngest TTSD board member ever
Ben Bowman said he knew he had touched a nerve when he attended his victory party at the Juanita Pohl Senior Center on election night for a Tigard-Tualatin School Board seat in May.
Once the numbers started to roll in, the Tigard and Tualatin high school students who assembled showed their enthusiasm.
"It was just like a roar of 30 high school (students) going crazy," Bowman recalls.
Not only was it a coup for someone so young to be elected as a board member, but Bowman edged out two other candidates, one of them an incumbent. Even more surprising: He collected 5,772 votes, more than the total of his challengers combined.
"I knew it was going to be close. I knew it would be competitive," he said. "I definitely did not think I'd win by that margin."
That election night also returned Jill Zurschmeide to her board seat for the fourth time.
When Bowman was officially sworn in as the newest member of the Tigard-Tualatin School Board during the board's annual retreat on July 12 — and sworn in again during a more formal ceremony at the July 15 board meeting — he tallied up a number of other firsts as well.
At 27, Bowman is believed to be the youngest member ever to serve on the board. Currently the only male on the board, he's also its first LBGTQ-identifying member, he said. In addition, he's been told that the May board race had one of the highest voter turnouts in modern school district history.
Bowman chalks up both student involvement and giving students a voice in his platform as helping to pave the way to his victory.
"Our ideas resonated; I think that's part of it, too," said Bowman, who described himself as a "political nerd" as a student attending Tualatin High School. "I think one thing that's changing, young people are becoming increasingly involved in politics and that's a really good thing."
In running, Bowman, who holds an undergraduate degree in political science and just received his master's in education policy, organization and leadership from Stanford University, said he had no ax to grind with the district or no particular subject he wanted to address.
"I think I got a really good education," said Bowman, who also attended the former Tualatin Elementary School, once located on Boone's Ferry Road and Hazelbrook Middle School. "My elementary teachers were amazing."
Bowman credits his mother, who works as a high school English teacher in Marion County, with piquing his interest in education.
But it wasn't until last winter when Bowman held his first meeting for his campaign that he saw interest among high school students who wanted to help put him on the board. Along the way he ended up with students from both Tualatin and Tigard high schools interested in helping out.
As the campaign kicked into high gear, a website was produced, a political action committee formed and yard signs placed in lawns around town. A high-production-value Facebook video was produced by a friend of Bowman's that focused on the fact that students were helping run the campaign, something extremely unusual in local politics. The post received 15,000 hits.
"I've always believed students should have a bigger role in education policy decision," he said.
As the campaign progressed so did student support.
"It was definitely like a snowball effect," he said "The students weren't used to being empowered."
Bowman said it's his belief that, in the past, students have been underutilized in the district, something he hopes to change.
During the campaign, students expressed their concerns over issues that needed to be addressed, some he hadn't even thought of.
One came from a student who texted him about the negative effect racism in high school was having on him including hearing the "N" word used in the halls. "I don't think it's unique to the Tigard-Tualatin School District," Bowman said, noting that the word wasn't spoken entirely by white students.
Meagan Turley, a Tigard High School senior involved in many local activities including Bowman's school board campaign, said she was drawn to the campaign because of how student-oriented it was, noting that Bowman "emphasized connecting with students and amplifying student voice on a genuine level."
Turley recently was appointed to the Tigard City Council as its first Tigard Youth Councilor. She said she believes student recruitment and engagement definitely raised awareness of the campaign, pointing out that students would come up to her in school and ask about the race,
"I had a ton of fun working on the campaign," Turley said. "There was a really positive energy surrounding the whole experience and it was really cool to get to know the other students."
Bowman currently works as a legislative affairs specialist for the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators, where he does education policy work at the Oregon Legislature.
"I think when all was said and done, our campaign knocked on over 8,000 doors," he said. But it wasn't students alone; teachers, firefighters and others supported Bowman.
Now that he's on the board, Bowman said he'll continue to seek out students and their opinions and would like to see about having student panels come in and speak on topical issues.
"That's what I'd like to do," he said. "I'd like to get the board on board on that."
He's also interested in the extracurricular pay-to-play fees, saying he thinks the amounts are too high. He said he would like to see if some of the money that will come to the district as part of the Oregon Legislature's recently passed Students Success Act can help pay for such activities.
He points out that studies show that students who participate in extracurricular activities do better in school.
"I think it's the most important piece of education legislation in my lifetime," he said of the Student Success Act, noting he was born not long after Measure 5, a property tax limitation measure that significantly limited school funding, went into effect.
One of his platform issues was addressing student mental health, sayings students today face more severe mental health issues than in the past, noting that there are startling rates of suicidal idolization.
Bowman said he'd also like to see some of the upcoming school funding money used to hire more school counselors and psychologists.
"We're the ones at the ground level deciding where that money will be spent," he said of the board.
Along the way to winning, Bowman picked up an endorsement from former school board member Barry Albertson, a longtime supporter of schools who often can be found at school events wearing his trademark yellow coat.
"It was important on a personal level because he's a board member I remembered and admired when I was in high school because he showed up to sports, arts … he was always there."
Bowman also was endorsed by former Mayor John Cook and current Mayor Jason Snider.
In addition, he had the support of State Rep. Margaret Doherty, whom he once worked for, who told him, "You should do it," when he first talked of running.
Doherty's district includes Tigard.
Bowman praised Doherty for her work in championing school nutrition expansion in the 2019 Student Success Act and as the driving force for allowing students from lower income families to receive free rather than reduced lunches at school.
"She's a rock star," Bowman said.
For her part, Doherty said she isn't surprised Bowman won, saying he ran a well-organized student-run campaign.
"The passion of the students helped propel him," she said. "I was surprised at the margin."
Because of his interest in education, Doherty said she believes Bowman will make an excellent school board member and believes his Stanford studies (where the emphasis on his master's program focused in part on student graduation rates) will help him in the future.
"He cares deeply about the people in the Tigard-Tualatin School District and will represent them well," Doherty said.
Bowman said he has no immediate political ambitions beyond the board, saying he loves the job he has now. But he doesn't rule out the Oregon Legislature in the future.
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