The meetings piled up this fall, highly charged affairs about closing and merging schools, but as St. Paul school board members deliberated, there was an empty seat alongside them.

It belonged to students.

In recent years, the board has made room for the district's Student Engagement and Advancement Board (SEAB), letting a member or two sit in on its meetings, ask questions and weigh in on the issues.

But that voice has been silenced this year, and while there is talk of a potential return in 2022-23, the absence of student advocates during debates over school consolidation and COVID-19 protocols has led many to ask: Whatever happened to SEAB?

Jerome Treadwell, a senior at Highland Park High School and executive director of the group Minnesota Teen Activists, said SEAB's absence helped explain why hundreds of students took it upon themselves last week to walk out of schools in an effort to force a districtwide shift to distance learning amid a COVID-19 surge.

"It's not even a thing anymore," Treadwell said of SEAB as he stood outside Highland Park High. "That's why we're here today asking for our voices to be heard."

Quietly, as it turns out, the school board and the district opted this year to pause the swapping in of a new cohort of SEAB members while it works out details in hiring a new facilitator for the group and sets out to find ways to hear from younger students, too, Jessica Kopp, the school board's vice chair, said last week.

But there are hard feelings on the part of members of last year's cohort. They saw SEAB's influence fade as the district put off the facilitator job posting. Three of the graduates offered to help train new recruits over the summer, but it went for naught.

Meanwhile, Minneapolis Public Schools added a second student representative to its school board.

"We're moving backward where other districts are moving forward," said Kalid Ali, a 2021 graduate of Como Park High whose involvement with SEAB helped him win admission to Macalester College. "It's hard to imagine a school district that started on such a high note is forgetting about student voice and student stakeholders."

SEAB was created by the school board in 2015 and made an immediate impact with a survey of student attitudes about school resource officers. The group would be one of several to successfully push for changes to the district's contract with police after a white officer's forceful arrest of a black student at Central High in May 2016.

The students later spearheaded an effort to allow graduates to decorate their gowns in ways that celebrate their identity and ethnicity. They encouraged schools to make advanced courses more readily available to students of color. Finally, in 2019, SEAB released a study calling for the district to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement.

The group got a celebratory nod, but with no members present, when the school board took final action on the ethnic studies requirement in December.

Ali was pleased with the development, but said he took no credit for it.

"It wasn't our accomplishment," he said. "It was something we advocated for, but it wasn't the work of the SEAB of the past two years."

A native of Ethiopia who moved to the United States in 2013, Ali said he would have loved to have seen SEAB take on a project inspired by his own experiences: finding ways for immigrant students to move more quickly out of English language learner programs and into general-education classrooms.

But at a school board meeting in May, Ali and two other SEAB members — Anindita Rajamani and Simon Mulrooney — said they felt hamstrung after the group's original facilitator left and the district failed to come up with a suitable replacement to help them navigate the state's second-largest school system.

They sought approval of a job posting then but were told it still needed work.

Kopp, then part of a subcommittee of SEAB and school board members, said last week: "It was humbling at that May board meeting to hear we'd let them down."

She said it had been hoped that the posting could be "buttoned down" during the summer from a human resources perspective, but administrative absences and work on the Envision SPPS consolidation plan got in the way. Without a facilitator to support SEAB, Kopp said, it seemed wrong to train and install a new cohort.

SEAB's voice was missing during the Envision discussions. But Kopp noted the changes mostly involved elementary schools, and that some of those children spoke, leading some board members to think about finding structured ways to give voice to more students.

Those ideas are likely to be discussed in the coming months, she said, along with the facilitator posting and expected return of SEAB in the fall.

"SEAB — and what else?" she said. "We're excited about what that could look like."