In the November Tempe Union High School District Governing Board elections, Armando Montero, a sophomore studying political science, economics and math, made history by becoming the youngest ever member elected to the board at 19. He was ceremonially sworn in by Mayor Corey Woods during the board’s first meeting of the year on Jan. 13.
Montero said joining the board was never a long-term goal, but his experience with the district made him knowledgeable of the issues students faced. When he was a sophomore in high school, Montero lost a friend to suicide, which prompted him to pay attention to the lack of mental health resources available in schools.
"Not only does Arizona have a student to counselor ratio of 1 to 900, but our counseling department is structured as very college readiness-oriented, they’re shorthanded and there is also a negative stigma surrounding mental health," Montero said.
As a junior in high school, Montero invested himself in learning about mental health and suicide prevention with the school district and became an active member in the community. In 2018, Montero organized with students across the district to introduce a resolution to the school board that was presented to more than a dozen other districts in Arizona.
“Having that opportunity to work with the district, I realized that there really wasn’t a voice for students on a governing board that oversees 14,000 students,” Montero said.
Montero said his goal for mental health awareness is a process that will take time, but he is willing to handle the issue patiently.
“We’re identifying where we’re lacking and what we’re doing well, and beginning the discussions of what we can do to make sure we’re taking strides to work with community partners and our feeder districts to reduce the stigma around mental health,” Montero said.
He said a lot of people don’t understand the importance of the local school board and the impact it has on every aspect of their life. The time students start school, what they’re fed during lunch, budgetary issues, hiring and firing of the superintendent and diversity in curriculum are some of the many issues that the board controls, he said.
“At least one of those voices on a five-person board should be someone that has gone through our school system and can bring that perspective to the conversations that are being had which (weren't) happening previously,” Montero said.
Montero first approached board member Berdetta Hodge when he was a student at Desert Vista High School to discuss his ideas about the mental health resources there.
“When I first heard he was running for the board, I was a little concerned because we need the five most qualified people,” Hodge said. “Then I saw him on the campaign trail and how mature he was; he changed my whole opinion on what it means to be a board member.”
Montero believes that his greatest challenges will come as a result of his age, which he said is often looked down upon in government.
“Being young in politics isn’t easy,” Montero said. “You’re often overlooked or told you’re too young and should wait your turn.”
Brian Garcia, now president of the board, was the youngest board member when he was elected in 2018. As a board member who was once in Montero's shoes, Garcia believes Montero will soon play a crucial role in shifting the culture of the board.
“My election helped steer that conversation, and Armando’s run really firms the reality that students do have an opinion and right to make sure they're heard,” Garcia said.
Garcia stressed the importance of diversity on the board and sticking to one's values, saying the different perspectives from members will enrich their conversations and make the board more approachable.
Garcia said with the addition of Montero, the board now consists of three Latinos, two who identify as members of the LGBTQ community, one African American woman and one white woman, all with different family backgrounds.
Montero said he is grateful for the faith voters had in his ability to contribute to the community.
“Being the youngest person on the board brings a lot of uncertainty, and (voters) gave me the opportunity to show that representation matters, so hopefully it inspires young people to get involved themselves,” Montero said.
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