When people show up at the school board these days, they’re often motivated to campaign on a controversial topic. That’s according to Ballotpedia, a non-profit organization that tracks political elections in the United States.
In an analysis of school board elections in 463 school districts in 2021, the organization found that elections that were once uncontested attracted candidates who were “galvanized by one issue or another.”
Three issues emerged most often. The most frequently cited issue was race in education, specifically the teaching of critical race theory. The second most frequently cited issue was school policies on the pandemic – that is, the requirement to wear masks or get vaccinated, or the reopening of schools. The third most cited element was sex and gender in schools, such as gender-sensitive facilities.
In January 2022, Ballotpedia discovered 287 school districts in 25 states where candidates took a stand on race in education; 199 school districts in 23 states where candidates have taken a stand on responses to the coronavirus pandemic; and 144 school districts in 18 states where candidates took a stand on sex and gender in schools.
A worrying trend
As a former school board member – and as a scholar who studies educational leadership and policy – I find it disturbing that polarizing issues are garnering so much attention from candidates. The reason I worry is that I know from experience that being an effective school board member is not just about taking a stand on a few hot topics. Rather, it is about much larger issues, such as meeting the educational needs of all students in the school district.
Too often, support for candidates depends on the positions they take on the most controversial issues. For example, in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis, speaking on behalf of his state’s Republican Party, pledged not to support “any Republican school board candidate who supports critical race theory in the 67 counties or who supports compulsory masking of school children”.
As passionate as people may be on issues such as mask requirements, keeping schools open, or confronting racial issues on the curriculum, running a school district is more than any of these. problems. With that in mind, here are three actions future school board candidates should be prepared to take.
1. Define district policy
One of the main functions of the school board is to develop, review and approve district policy. These policies may include implementing state mandates—such as establishing high school graduation requirements—or formulating a teacher evaluation plan.
Some policies address general issues that affect all students. For example, a policy may express the goal of ensuring that all students have Internet access at home. Other policies could address more minor issues, such as allowing homeschooled students to participate in extracurricular activities at the local public school.
2. Make tough budget decisions
One of the most difficult tasks school board members face is deciding how to spend the school district’s limited revenue.
The vast majority of a district’s budget—about 80% to 85%—is spent on personnel costs, such as school staff salaries and benefits. Paying these employee expenses is becoming more difficult due to the rising cost of health insurance.
To stay within budget, school board members may need to cut positions or programs. It’s usually about weighing the trade-offs: are we cutting our talent program to keep our school safety officer? Are we cutting teaching posts to make the budget, and if so, which ones?
Every decision has consequences. For example, cutting a program for gifted and talented people would upset some families. Continued funding for a night school program may require a series of budget cuts in other areas, such as field trips or late buses.
A tough budget choice I remember facing as a school board member was deciding whether to renovate an outdated and undersized school theater. The board members all agreed that the theater was in desperate need of an upgrade, but decided to postpone the upgrade of the theater to meet other needs. The high school would soon need a new roof and a boiler which eventually took priority.
3. Select a superintendent
The selection of a district leader is of crucial importance. The same goes for the decision to keep or dispose of it. A good superintendent can make or break a district. The superintendent is the face of the school community and the instructional leader of the district.
Superintendents work with the school board to set the district’s vision and goals and then ensure they are met. They also hire and manage directors and other district managers. Superintendents are expected to keep children and staff safe and to be good stewards of district finances.
Finding a good superintendent involves looking for proven leaders in areas of importance. Do they have a history of improving student achievement? Have they created a positive school climate and culture? Are they effective communicators?
If a school board chooses an ineffective superintendent, it usually sets a district back and the board ends up having to spend time and money replacing him.
A key distinction of American democracy is that candidates can develop platforms as they see fit, and it’s up to voters to decide whether a particular candidate will represent their concerns. But when it comes to managing a school system, it’s important to remember that it’s about more than just taking a stand on a few controversial issues. It is also about making wise financial decisions and implementing policies that ensure that all students receive the education they deserve.[Get the best of The Conversation, every weekend. Sign up for our weekly newsletter.]