by Shirley Hilts-Adams, Co-Chair, Public Policy Committee
Local school boards are a uniquely American institution and at the heart of this country’s public education system. A board’s existence is based on the belief that lay control of public education makes schools flexible and responsive to the needs of the local community… states the introductory paragraph of the Arizona School Board Association document on Becoming a School Board Member. Other state school board associations phrase the concept of school board service in a similar manner.
Members of organizations such as the Learning Disabilities Association of America are uniquely qualified to become school board members based on their experience, knowledge base, and involvement with educational issues over a period of years. Their ability to read and understand large volumes of educational information, the need to work well with others and to compromise when needed, the ability to make difficult decisions, and the ability to advocate for students are all traits needed on school boards.
On Tues., Nov. 4, in most states, school board members will be elected by the voters of their districts. There are exceptions: New York State school board elections are held the third Tuesday in May to coincide with the electorate vote on school board budgets; some states appoint their board members. Board members in some districts and states receive a salary; in others, board members serve as volunteers. However, conference and travel expenses for training are paid by the district in which they serve.
States and school districts have different requirements for filing candidate nominating petitions and obtaining the necessary signatures to have their name placed on a ballot. This information can be obtained from your local school district, the county superintendent of schools (not a position in all states), or the local Board of Elections. Nominating petitions must be filed from 30 to 90 days in advance of the election, depending on the law in your state (early August to early October).
Most school districts strive to see that the district electorate is aware of the candidates and issues in the district. Some publish a district newsletter, mailed to all district residents, where all candidates are showcased with their picture, brief background information, and a narrative (usually limited to a few hundred words). This information may also be available on a school district’s website or in local newspapers as the election draws near. Others provide candidate forums in district schools for which the League of Women Voters will usually provide a moderator as a public service. In smaller districts, the parent-teacher organization may develop a voter’s guide with candidates’ responses to questions such as:
- Why are you seeking this office?
- What do you hope to accomplish, if elected?
- What are the most important issues facing our district in the next few years?
- What ideas do you have to help alleviate or solve these issues?
Candidates responses are generally limited to a certain number of words; responses are sometimes ended in mid-sentence should the candidate exceed the stated maximum.
Candidates for school board have different reasons for running, some selfless or noble, some for other reasons. When considering a vote for a school-board candidate, there are questions to keep in mind. Does the candidate:
- have a single issue platform or display a genuine interest in district education;
- have a history of participation on school district committees such as finance, discipline, text-book adoption, dress code, or in the parent-teacher organization;
- understand the functions and responsibilities of a school board member;
- display the ability to work with others and to compromise, when needed;
- attend candidate training sessions provided by the state school boards association;
- demonstrate a familiarity with issues concerning Common Core State Standards; and
- appear to understand the special education process of evaluation and placement of students with disabilities, including the district’s approach to the general education initiative, Response to Intervention (RtI)?
Besides good, effective school board members, an effective school district requires an informed and active electorate. Check with your school district to see if a candidates’ forum is planned, whether there will be a voters’ guide produced by the district, or whether information on the candidates will appear in the district or school newsletter or on the district’s website. For specific information on school boards in your state, visit National School Boards Association and click on your state.
Shirley Hilts-Adams served on a public school board, on a charter school board, and on a school board for a North Central Association accredited school system for a state juvenile correction agency. She is a long-time member of LDA.