When Owen Mallery graduated from Putnam County High School, he joked with his superintendent if he should sit with his peers or with the school board at the ceremony.
In 2017, Mallery, along with Jake Leahy in Bannockburn District 106, were elected to school boards at age 18, while they were still high school students. Both are still serving on their respective school boards.
Unlike Leahy, Mallery was elected in his own district, making his situation even more unique.
On Thursday, Streator High School senior Richard "Hank" Tutoky is scheduled to go to court to try to get on the ballot of his high school's board.
Tutoky filed paperwork to be a candidate in December, but he was removed from the race Jan. 2 after a hearing in front of the LaSalle County Electoral Board. Tutoky signed nomination paperwork when he was 17 saying he was at least 18 years old. On Jan. 3, Tutoky turned 18, the minimum age to serve on the school board.
Streator High School Board member James Parr filed the objection regarding the signature, but he said after the hearing he believed it was a conflict of interest for a student to serve on his own school's board. Parr was concerned about Tutoky being in a position of authority with teachers or fellow students.
Mallery and Leahy are not the first teens elected to school boards. Former Congressman Aaron Schock won a seat on the Peoria School District 150 Board in 2001 when he was 19, making him the youngest Illinois school board member at the time.
According to the Illinois School Law Survey, the qualifications to serve as a school board member are, as of the date of the election: a U.S. citizen, a resident of the state and school district for at least one year preceding election, at least 18 years of age and a registered voter. State law also has additional prohibitions that govern qualifications.
Mallery won as a write-in
In the Putnam County School District, Mallery, who now studies at Bradley University in Peoria, was elected to his school board as a write-in candidate. Although he didn't have a challenger in the race, he collected the minimum 50 votes despite not having his name on the ballot.
Mallery said he heard some of the same complaints about conflicts of interest when he ran and after he was elected. Mallery was a student for one meeting in May, before he graduated.
"I heard through the grapevine some teachers were complaining about it," he said. "I had one teacher in class ask me, 'Don't you think it's ridiculous you are on the board as a student?'"
Mallery said voters of the school district should decide what they believe is a conflict of interest, noting his nearly two years on the school board have been both a learning experience and productive as far as the perspective he's able to give.
Mallery said he would have abstained from voting if he believed there was an issue with a teacher or coach he was close to, using the example of his baseball coach.
Mallery said he had to prove himself at first when it came to talking about issues, before he believed other board members started listening.
He said his recent experiences in school helped him inform board members who are decades older than him in regard to the importance of the ACT/SAT tests, advanced placement courses and applying for college, among other areas.
Putnam County School Board President Rhiannon Baker said Mallery's presence on the board has given the board "good perspective."
"(A conflict of interest) hasn't been a concern," Baker said. "He brings a student's aspect on potential votes on an old teacher, coach or whatever. He's been an asset."
Student representation is common on college boards where elected students are given binding votes.
Mallery said he's learned a lot about district finances and how to find common ground with fellow board members on issues that are important to him.
"We all seven have different opinions, different political beliefs," he said. "But we all respect each other."
Mallery said he was inspired to run for school board to give back to his community and make his school a better place. He has no aspirations for a political career.
While he realizes challenges are likely for any student who runs for their own school's board, he encourages more to do so, and he's hoping Tutoky makes it on the ballot.
"It would be unfortunate if he wasn't able to run," Mallery said. "Jake Leahy and I, both of us, have shown younger people can be on school boards and can do a good job."