HomeImprove Your SchoolVolunteering & Fundraising

How to Choose a School Board Candidate: What Every Voter Should Know

Before you vote, find out here what a school board does and what to look for in candidates.

By GreatSchools Staff

Getting involved with your local board of education doesn't have to mean running your own campaign for a seat or taking detailed notes at every single meeting. The first simple step--one that every registered voter should take very seriously--is voting in the election of school board members.

Read on to find out how school boards work, what they do, how they can be effective and what you should know about the candidates before heading to the polls.

What is a board of education?

School board members make up the largest body of elected officials in the United States. We entrust them to set the policies of our most treasured institutions: our public elementary, middle and high schools. Every district has a board of education, and boards generally meet every month in meetings that are open to the public.

These gatherings range from tame rubber-stamping sessions to intense, provocative discussions with the community where controversial issues are debated and landmark decisions are made.

School boards are nonpartisan. In most districts, members serve four-year terms, and terms are staggered so seats don't become open all at once. In general, to run for school board, you have to be at least 18 years old, a citizen of the state, a resident of the district, a registered voter and eligible under the state constitution to be elected to public office.

In most cases, a school district employee can't be a board member in that district. This means no teacher, principal, librarian, custodian or anyone else that works in a school in the district can serve on the school board, unless they resign from the employed position.

School districts are complex corporations; they' re often the largest employers in a community and the decisions they make reach far, affecting jobs, resources and most importantly, the education of all children.

What do they do?

Somewhere in between the agendas, public comment sessions and resolutions, school boards make a number of important decisions. School boards establish a vision for the community's schools. They have to set up and maintain an effective, efficient organizational structure for the district that lets the superintendent and administrators manage the schools, teachers teach and students learn.

They are responsible for hiring and evaluating a superintendent, evaluating and adopting policies that affect all schools in the district, serving as a judicial and appeals body when conflicts go unresolved, monitoring and adjusting district finances, and managing the collective bargaining process in the district.

A school board has a symbolic role as well. The behavior it shows off in the meeting room, the rapport among school board members and the relationships that members have with teachers and administrators in the district all add up to the climate of public education in a community. Whether healthy or dysfunctional, a school board has a heavy influence on the spirit that characterizes a community's impression of its school system.

How can I tell if my school board is doing a good job?

By attending a few school board meetings, you'll learn firsthand what school boards do. Call your district office to find out where and when meetings are held. Once you've observed your school board in action, you'll be prepared to ask the following questions:

  • How does the school board make decisions? Do the members function as predictable, single-issue advocates, or do they approach each decision with an open mind? Do they seem to make strategic choices for the well-being of the district? Strong decision-making requires analysis, the balancing of needs and concerns, and the ability to see the long-term implications of an action.
  • How's the team spirit?  Does the board exhibit a healthy group dynamic, or is it a parade of egos marching single-file? Do members show respect and trust for each other, and for the operating rules of the board?
  • Is the board's authority well defined?  The classic challenges of management don't skip over your board of education. There's a delicate balance between the board's act of choosing a strong chief executive (the superintendent) and letting him or her lead the way and the board's tendency to get involved with many levels of decision-making.
  • Does the board understand the community?  One of the most difficult parts of school governance is creating a strong relationship with the public. An effective board knows and respects its community, and encourages the community's trust in its school system.

Comments from readers

"Wonderful information. "
"Our school district voted 3 times to pass a referendum to get more $$. The 3rd time they encouraged voters who do not pay property taxes to be sure and vote. They arranged many opportunities for them to register and scared them with threats of doing away with extra curricular activities, athletics, band....3rd time was the charm for the district, a burden to the tax payers. There is no improvement in the overall education of the students-our district has been on the watch list for years. :o( Beware!!"
"I appreciated your article and have a question for you about our school board. The school board put a bond to the voters for $millions, and was voted down by it's citizens. since it didn't pass, they put it on the ballot two more times; three times in all. now, since they didn't like the answer they received from the citizery, they are doing it again. in all instances, the board has people call and ask how the citizens are voting and intimidate them. if you say you are not voting for the bond, they just hang up. last election they called homes four different times. they even lied about what they were using the money for. what can the citizens do about this and is this customary?"
"While this article was written a few years ago, I found it to be a nice and simple description of a very gray area in the community. I'm curious as to others' thoughts about how long school members should be allowed to serve and do they have a right to have a voice when it comes to the student's curriculum?"
"Thank you for an excellent and informative article. In response to the question of 7/21/2010, in my school district, Santa Clara Unified (California), candidates must live in specific areas of the district (called Trustee Areas), but voters in the school district can vote for board members in all trustee areas. For example, I'm currently running for the school board in Trustee Area 2 of Santa Clara Unified School District (I live in Trustee Area 2), but voters in our school district are able to vote for candidates in Trustee Areas 1, 2, and 3, regardless of which Trustee Area they live in. Depending on the size of the Trustee Area, there will be 1 or 2 seats up for election in each Trustee Area, so voters will get to vote for 1 or 2 candidates in each Trustee Area. The ballot pamphlet, and actual ballot, will specify for voters exactly how many candidates to vote for in each Trustee Area."
"can you vote on all districts or just your own school district "
"I was wondering if a board member has to be at most/all meetings? What if a board member has there address here, but is living over half of the year in another state which means not attending meetings? How are things decided on if not all members are attending?"
"All: Why is it that school boards seemingly across the nation permit the administrators to( ad nausum)permit/encourage FAILURE to be the new standard of high academic achievement? Annually, they support those charged with education to continue to fail. Superintendents are never removed for gross failure. Boards look the other way, or dimiss public disapproval. Boards are one of the central reasons why failure in the schools is the 'new norm.' They have removed shame from the student body( anything goes)and with that cover, they are shameless about their enabling incompetence. Their collecive bumbling is considered a job well done!!!"
"Do all school board members have to be a resident of the district, and if so, what do you do if you know that a member does NOT reside in the district? "
" I appreciated the good information included in this article. Board members need to follow all laws state and federal. They should know the regulations of governance such as the Brown Act, Ed. Codes and honor federal laws which guarantee Freedom of Speech in Open Session. The time for public commentary can include criticism of Board policy in open session. ( Baca Vs. Moreno Valley School Board ). Community service does not have to be a thankless job. Community, parents and students appreciate the dedication school boards members demonstrate when they actively form partnerships and coalitions with all stakeholders. Board members if you haven't been thanked lately, perhaps you are not meeting the needs of the community you were elected to serve. On the other hand,board members who advocate for educational equity are community leaders and they most definitely MERIT community respect. "
"Thanks you for the information in this article. I am not a political person but I have found the need to start getting involved in politics. I live in Mobile, Alabama and the school board has cut hundrends of jobs due to no funds. This week is our primary election for state school board candidates and I needed to know what to look for in the candidates. The article helped so much, thanks again."
"Hello, I am running for School Board in my community. I agree with your candidate qualities and my hope is that I am able to fit each criteria to the best of my ability. I love the teachers that teach my children and my children love them also. I desire to serve the children and the families that live in my community."
"Thanks for an article that can be a very valuable tool for the public who sometimes misunderstands the role of a school board member. Its content matches the governance training and Governance Standards of the California School Boards Assn. whose mission includes teaching us to be good at the governance of our public schools. I take exception to the 'rubber stamp' comment. The board meeting itself is to conduct the official business of the board and is not the time for the hours of staff or committee work (involving all stakeholders) that has preceded additional public input and the actual votes at the meeting. Nor is it a time for us to make lengthy speeches. If a board is doing its job, background reading and clarification questions make a school board meeting run efficiently. "
"Great school board leaders set a clear vision based on real knowledge of education (does the candidate have education-related experience?); they ensure that the vision is executed by the Superintendent without meddling in the details (does the candidate have management-related experience?); they live up to the obligations of the law (does the candidate have Governance-related experience?); and -- this is important -- they faithfully represent the interests of students and parents in their role as the negotiating counterparty to the union in contract negotiations. Board members who aspire to higher office hesitate to push the teachers union because union allies can be very valuable in future campaigns. (Is this candidate really committed to the kids, or is this a stepping-stone?) "
"This is a very good article! "