In Texas, California, Michigan, New York and 24 other states, school boards are on the ballot this November. That means folks in those places may be seeing the names of their friends, neighbors or even their doctors popping up on yard signs. This can be exciting, and it can also be confusing.
How can voters make a solid choice for school board when many people don’t understand what the job entails or how to choose the best candidates?
The Role of the School Board
Both school board candidates and their constituents often misunderstand the role of the school board. School boards are responsible for governing the district, not managing it. In other words, the school board does not run the district but instead ensures the district is run well.
While a school board may have the state-granted authority to approve the district budget, the school board shouldn’t be involved in the district’s day-to-day accounting practices.
While the school board may approve the hire of a middle school science teacher, individual school directors should likely not be involved in the posting of the teaching position or be in the room for candidate interviews.
These tasks are the role of the district administration, who is hired by the superintendent. The superintendent is appointed by the board and accountable to the board. Very little about board-level decisions is simple or easy, and nearly all those decisions are made in collaboration with the superintendent and district administration.
School board decision making is also usually done very transparently. In making crucial decisions for public schools funded by taxpayer dollars, the school board is accountable to federal and state laws as well as their local board policy. They must follow their state’s open record laws (in Pennsylvania this is called “The Sunshine Act”) which means that while they can meet privately for limited reasons like school safety or student privacy, the overwhelming majority of their collective discussion, debate, and ultimately decisions must be made in public with an opportunity for the public to comment on agenda and decisions.
This is a vastly different way of collaboration and leadership than what many experience in their private lives and professional careers. It is also a major difference from serving on nonprofit and corporate governance boards.
Why Run For School Board?
So why are your neighbors, friends and community leaders running for school board? Who would sign up for a volunteer role that requires making hard decisions in public with no pay and long evening meetings? Because the board can dramatically affect the students, families, professional and support staff, and administration of the district.
The school board sets a vision which should reflect the priorities of the community. The board is responsible for providing the resources—financial and otherwise—needed to ensure student safety, growth and achievement. And the board is responsible for holding the superintendent accountable for executing the vision. Here are some specific ways a school board impacts a district and community.
- Hiring and evaluating a superintendent to lead all district operations.
- Approving the comprehensive or strategic plans which set district goals for student achievement.
- Approving the annual budget which determines tax rates for collected revenue and resource allocations among programs, buildings and initiatives.
- Adopting policies which are enforceable laws on the local level. Policies guide student discipline, academic programs, and the equitable treatment of professional and support staff.
- Approving textbooks, courses of study and facilities improvements.
- Ensuring equity among its student populations through monitoring key data on student achievement, growth, and success and prioritizing resources to those who need it most.
These are the kinds of decisions that require strong communication and collaboration with your local district’s leadership, and that can make a real difference in the lives of children in your community.
How Can You Evaluate Your School Board Candidates?
Serving on a school board requires long hours, a learning mindset, and courage to ask tough questions, make tough decisions, and compromise in a collective governance model. How can you tell who has the right knowledge and skill among campaign promises and dramatic rhetoric?
Look for community leaders who focus on and have demonstrated the following:
- Curiosity to learn and a commitment to listen.
- Understanding of the school board’s role vs. the role of district administration or professional staff like teachers, counselors and principals.
- Desire or ability to build consensus among diverse perspectives.
- Commitment to improving growth, safety and achievement for all students.
- Independent thinking—not parroting the lines of special interest groups or only the loudest voices in the community.
- Priority for civil discourse, respectful dialogue and pushing the status quo.
But the best way to understand the role and impact of your local school board is to attend or watch their meetings, review the publicly available governance documents (facilities plan, strategic plan, school audit and district budget) and read some of the publicly available board policies. If you do any of these action steps you will be a more informed voter and better able to help your community’s children succeed. And, in the future, you might be a qualified candidate to run for school board yourself.
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