How A High School Student Won A School Board Seat By Standing Up To Extremists

Shiva Rajbhandari, 18, beat out an opponent endorsed by a local far-right group that had harassed officials and supported banning books.
Boise School Board Trustee Shiva Rajbhandari
Boise School Board Trustee Shiva Rajbhandari
Courtesy Shiva Rajbhandari

On one of the biggest nights of his life, Shiva Rajbhandari was at Roots Zero Waste Market. The 18-year-old climate activist from Boise, Idaho, described it as “a super cool local grocery store with an event space.” About 30 of his friends and supporters were there, eating “super good food.”

They were there to find out if Rajbhandari would defeat incumbent Steve Schmidt — a 47-year-old engineer endorsed by local far-right extremist groups — in the race for a seat on the school board. Around 10:30 p.m. Rajbhandari saw a tweet that the election results wouldn’t be announced until well after midnight.

“And then I was like, ‘OK, well, everyone can go home or you can come over,’” he recalled. “And some people came over to my house and we watched ’Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.’ And then as it got closer to 1 a.m., we turned off the TV and we just started watching the election-counting livestream, which is super boring. And then finally we had the results.”

At 3:10 a.m. on Sept. 7 — a school night — Rajbhandari tweeted a selfie. It showed him, wide-eyed and smiling, flanked by friends, campaign staff, volunteers and his dad.

“I was just really humbled to be surrounded by all the people who had gotten me to this point,” he said. Rajbhandari, a senior at Boise High School, had just been elected to the Boise School District Board of Trustees with 56% of the vote.

That Sunday, Rajbhandari attended Boise Pride as a trustee-elect. On Tuesday, he put on a shirt and tie, raised his right hand, and was sworn into office.

And on Wednesday, at 3:07 p.m., in the half hour he had free between AP Psych and cross-country practice, Rajbhandari talked to HuffPost about why he ran for office, why more students should run, why it’s vital to stand up to book-banning, gun-toting, anti-mask, anti-LGBTQ extremists who harass school boards across the country, especially in Idaho ― and why he got sent to to the principal’s office that one time.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What inspired you to run?

So first of all, I think students deserve a voice, and I think students belong everywhere decisions are being made, but particularly where decisions are being made in education. Across the country, 14% of large school districts have students on the school board. Having folks with boots on the ground in the classroom, honestly, is a no-brainer when it comes to making educational decisions. Particularly now, when there’s so many nuanced issues affecting schools, and oftentimes [the numbers and statistics you read in reports] don’t fully reflect the experience.

I was working with a group of students across four Boise high schools, as well as some of the junior highs, on a collective commitment on clean energy with the Idaho Climate Justice League, which is essentially like a Sierra Club youth group working for clean energy for all. And we were trying to get a long-term sustainability plan for our district, and a clean energy commitment, which — our city has already made a really strong climate action plan — and now it’s time for our district as one of the largest institutions to do the same. You know climate change is the number-one priority for youth around the world, so obviously it’s a big deal for schools to decarbonize and to move away from fossil fuels.

“When I first started to become a climate justice organizer in ninth grade, they used to come to our climate rallies ... with AR-15s, and just stand around our rally.”

- Shiva Rajbhandari

But basically I was working with the students, and for like two years we were reaching out to our board members. We wrote letters, we did letters to the editor. We talked to our power company. We were on our district sustainability committee. We organized the first city club forum to include youth. We wrote like 300 postcards to the school board. We did it all. And, you know, our school board members, it just seemed like they never had time for us. They never really responded to our emails, or if they did, you know, they kind of deferred us to the sustainability committee, which we were already on. It was very frustrating.

And I remember one time in particular, I wrote a letter to our school board president, who I now work with, detailing our efforts and basically asking for a meeting. All we wanted was to talk about this initiative, which has actually saved schools across the country a ton of money. Energy is our second-largest expenditure too. So it was a big thing for our school, but I never got a response — well I should say in the short term, he wanted me to clarify — I did not get a response for six months to that letter, but I know that he read the letter because a week later I get called into the principal’s office and reprimanded for reaching out to board members. You know, “You need to go through the principal first, it’s a bureaucratic system,” and that was really frustrating to me—

Last year a kid brought a gun to our high school and he was suspended for that, and then the Idaho Liberty Dogs planned an armed rally out on the sidewalk of our school because basically, the kid didn’t bring the gun onto campus, he was on the sidewalk, so that’s what they wanted to show us. “Oh, we can all go stand with our guns on a sidewalk outside of the public high school.”

They organized this book-banning thing in Nampa — that’s been a big thing. They banned 24 books in Nampa, three of which are on the AP Literature and Composition list, so not only are they banning books, censoring information, but they are limiting those students’ competitiveness with students across the country.

And then recently, they tried to ban a bunch of books in the Meridian public library system. They submitted a list ― I think it was like over 50 books. One of the books is “Captain Underpants,” which is a book I used to read in first grade. They’re certainly not representative of the values that the majority of Idahoans share, and not a majority of Boise School District patrons, which I think the election showed.

And it was your feeling that Schmidt did not reject their endorsement strongly enough?

Yeah, I mean, I have the texts right here. I texted Steve — we’d met before because, you know, you should always meet with your opponent before you run with them — but I said, “Hey, this is Shiva. You know, I saw your endorsement, I need to know if you’ll publicly disavow this.”

And he said, “Oh, I didn’t see it yet. I’ll respond similarly to how I did with the Boise Schools Parents’ Association.” So the way he responded with these kinds of associations was not a disavowal. It was like, “I’ve been endorsed by multiple groups, including the teachers union and the Boise Schools Parents’ Association, and I want to represent all of them.”

He never disavowed the Idaho Liberty Dogs’ endorsement. He said, “Oh, I disagree with some of their actions. I don’t condone hate, violence and intimidation.” It was like three Facebook posts. But he never disavowed the endorsements…

Editor’s note: Schmidt’s failure to strongly rebuke the Idaho Liberty Dogs’ endorsement led to Boise’s biggest newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, to endorse Rajbhandari in the race.

It was really an interesting choice because, you know, Steve Schmidt, I don’t think he’s a bad guy. He’s not an extremist. But he had people on the board asking him to [disavow]. He had a PAC that sponsored his run asking him about this. Everyone agreed that, “Hey, this is really disgusting.” And he still refused to do it. And I think … what it showed is a lack of understanding of the threat that extremism poses to our districts and extremism poses to our schools in a state like Idaho, in a city like Boise, which is surrounded on all sides by districts and library boards that are being intimidated and that are being forced to do these things.

And what are your plans now? Is your board term going to interrupt with you going to college or anything? Have you thought that through yet?

Yeah, I thought that through. I mean, I ran for the board to establish a student position on the school board. I ran for mental health, climate action and supporting teachers. But really, I ran to to be a voice for students, because those are those three issues that students see on a daily basis in their schools. So we need a permanent student position on the school board. And that means when I graduate, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to continue to stay on the board. So I’m still working through this with my fellow trustees and administration. But I should be replaced by a student in a year.

But if the rest of the board does not agree to do that then, yes, I’ll serve the full two years, and I’ll serve in full capacity. You can serve virtually ― a lot of our meetings are virtual. But yeah, I think it would be a loss for our community not to have a student on the school board.

What’s your message for students around the country who might want to do this?

My message to students around the country is to know your worth and know your collective power. I have never failed to be impressed by how much we can accomplish when we work together and when we demand a seat at the table, a seat that we deserve. Don’t let people tell you that your voice doesn’t matter, because that’s a lie. It does. And it matters so much that they’re scared to tell you. Run for office and demand a seat at the table. Students are the largest stakeholders in education.

And, I know you’re new to this, but you beat someone that had gotten an endorsement from some extreme groups. School board members across the country are dealing with extremist groups harassing them. Do you have any message for them?

My message to trustees around the country is don’t back down. Don’t back down in your support of your teachers and your support of your students and in support of your schools. The people who are spewing this hate are in the minority. They’re the vocal minority. And my election says that here in Idaho, and elections across the country are showing that, stick to your principles. Be unrelenting and your defense of your schools and stand up for what you know is right.

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