BRUNSWICK — One of Stephen Backman’s favorite teachers calls him “the mayor of Brunswick High School.”
It’s an unofficial title, the 17-year-old student joked in a recent interview.
A real one, he said, is president of the Class of 2017 – an office Backman has held for a year, during which he’s also served as the senior liaison to the School Board.
“Everything I do is controversial for someone,” Backman acknowledged – a political reality he’s seen played out on the School Board, too, especially during a contentious budget season.
For Backman, though, politics hasn’t prevented him from making hard choices to defend the reason he took on his leadership roles: helping people.
“I try to be as empathetic as I can to everyone,” he said.
Even members of the School Board, with whom he hasn’t always agreed. Recently, Backman wasn’t afraid to challenge his adult colleagues when they eliminated a set of classes he thought were valuable.
“(That’s) why I’m there,” he said. “(The board) isn’t in the school all the time, (and) don’t see what all the students see or hear.”
As class president, Backman keeps in mind that “you have to represent everyone in the class,” and he always tries to make decisions that will equally maximize opportunities for his 170 classmates.
As such, the job has sometimes been a lesson in creative compromises, and in those cases, Backman said he looks for solutions that ensure the best outcome for everyone.
A good example of that occurred recently when he surveyed his class to find out whether they’d prefer to use a surplus in fundraising dollars to reduce the cost of prom tickets – priced at $40 – or use the money for a class trip.
The survey results produced almost an even split, with a few more votes cast in favor of funding the trip.
At that point, Backman decided to use his executive authority to reject the survey.
“All these 39 kids who voted to not have prom more expensive,” he explained, “all I could think about was, ‘What if they wanted (prom to be) less expensive because they couldn’t afford ($40 tickets)?’ It wouldn’t be an equal opportunity for everyone.”
Instead, Backman worked to reduce the cost of tickets to $30 and allocate enough money to fund a trip to Old Orchard Beach – a move that might have incurred political backlash, but he said was in keeping with his governing principles.
“I didn’t want kids to have to choose between the two,” he said, simply.
Backman has also advocated for his classmates on the School Board, where he acknowledged that the choices and compromises aren’t always simple.
Facing a shortage in the state subsidy this year, the Board has labored for nearly 10 weeks to trim the budget without detracting from the quality of education.
Sitting in on those meetings, Backman described himself as “a reassurance” to the Board: providing a direct line to student life, and a check on their judgment as they try to broker tough compromises.
Recently, Backman challenged his adult colleagues for proposed cuts to that would eliminate two positions in the business department.
“The biggest thing you hear about in school is how kids don’t get a practical (skills education),” he stated in an interview, arguing business-related courses appeal to a broad range of students, including those unsure of their post-graduate interests.
The board ultimately included the cut in their initial budget proposal, citing low enrollment numbers.
Backman pushed back against the justification using an argument that reflected the prom-survey situation: he looked past the numbers to identify a subtler, more qualitative value.
Those courses might be under-enrolled, he said, but are also “underrated.”
“It’s hard, from my point of view, to think about not keeping the stuff that will be cut,” he said, adding that a similar fear struck him when the Board considered cutting freshman sports.
After graduation – to take place at 7 p.m. on June 9 at Bowdoin College’s Watson arena – Backman said he won’t pursue politics.
Instead, he will attend Springfield College in Massachusetts, where he will study to be a paramedic.
It’s a career he’s long been working toward and builds on his time spent as a junior firefighter in Freeport.
At its core, though, Backman said it isn’t all the different than what he’s used to because it’s a job based on “helping people.”
Stephen Backman, right, stands with his childhood friend and classmate Timothy Humphrey, with whom he will walk at Brunswick High School graduation. Backman is president of the Class of 2017, which will graduate June 9 at 7 p.m. in Bowdoin College’s Watson Arena.