Is this scene familiar? You, responsible citizen, are standing in a ballot box. Along with voting on important local measures, you come across a list of names running for the school board. You scan the list and realize that most, if not all, of the names are unfamiliar. Hmmmm, you think, I have no idea who to vote for. Really, does it matter? It’s just the school board.

You’re not alone. Some of the most involved parents pay little to no attention to school board elections. But there are many good reasons to care — a lot. Those few people who sit on your local school board are the oft unseen decision makers in your child’s schooling. They determine the quality of the buildings your child spends their days in. They select the textbooks your child reads and the online programs your child logs countless hours on. They assess safety procedures during emergencies and choose the bus company that ferries your child home. They are also where the buck stops: they decide whether or not your superintendent is doing her job.

If voting for a school board candidate still doesn’t sound like such a big deal, try this statistic on for size: Only 10 percent of the voting population shows up to cast a ballot in their local school board elections. While it’s unfortunate that more people don’t take part in selecting the board members who control your school’s policies and budgets, there is an upside.

Your single vote counts for more than in almost any other election because there is such a low turnout. And when it comes to your district’s school board, the power of being an informed parent counts for a lot as well.

With that in mind, here’s a primer on the ABCs of school boards — whether it’s voting in the next election, attending meetings, or working with your district’s school board on a pressing issue.

What the heck is a board of education?

Public schools are run, as the name implies, by the public.

The voting public (ahem, you) votes on, and essentially hires, their board of education. A board of education, some districts call it a school committee, is a group of three to seven elected officials (in a few districts they’re appointed) who assume a leadership role in overseeing the academic, legal, and financial health of a school district.

What does that entail? School boards are nothing less than the governing body of a school district. They are the bosses’ bosses representing the public interest and to this extent, they should serve the diverse values and needs of their community.

Every district in the country has a board of education. Nationwide, school board members make up the largest group of elected officials in the country, totaling approximately 95,000 people. Aside from your child’s teacher, principal, and district superintendent, school board members have the greatest influence on your child’s education because they decide on how to spend a district’s public school funds and set its governing policies.

The day-to-day work of school boards

Typically, school boards convene every month in meetings that are open to the public. These gatherings range from tedious and tame rubber-stamping sessions to intense, provocative discussions where controversial issues are debated and landmark decisions are made.

School boards are nonpartisan. In most districts, members serve four-year terms. Their terms are staggered so seats don’t become open all at once, and most elections take place in November. In most cases, a candidate has to be at least 18 years old, a citizen of your state, a resident of your district, and a registered voter and eligible under your state’s constitution to be elected to public office.

School board members can, and ideally should, reflect the diversity of the community. Particularly in large districts, they are more representative of their communities than members of Congress. According to the National School Boards Association, nationwide, 44 percent of school boards are female (more than twice the rate of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate), and 21.8 percent of the school boards members surveyed were African-American and 6 percent were Latino.

Depending on the district, many are unpaid volunteers and others, especially in large districts with more responsibilities and larger budgets, receive a small salary. In some districts, the duties entail a lot of work for the position. It’s not atypical that a large-district school board member would work about 40 hours a month on board-related duties.

In most cases, a school district employee can’t be a board member in their district. This means that a teacher, principal, librarian, custodian, or anyone else who works in a school in their district cannot serve on their school board unless they resign from their employed position.

School districts are complex organizations and require a governing board that collectively have a range of skills, from managing a budget of often millions of dollars to responding to the needs of millions of parents, guardians, and children. Without exception, the decisions a school board makes will impact your children and you for years to come.

But what does the school board do?

A well-run school board plays a vital role in keeping your local schools on track, always with the students’ best interests in mind. Ideally, a school board works with, and for, their community with the overarching goal of improving your district’s local schools. They should be maintaining a strong organizational structure for their district, one that empowers the superintendent and district administrators to manage the schools, the teachers to effectively teach, and the students to be supported in a thriving learning environment.

5 key functions of a good school board

    1. Sets a vision They establish a clear vision and high expectations for quality education that supports strong student outcomes.
    2. Advances policy They set practical guidelines for transforming its vision into reality. Through policy, the school board influences nearly every aspect of school operations.
    3. Demonstrates accountability They share responsibility with educators for the performance of the district’s schools and students. This means maintaining high academic standards, transparency, and accountability.
    4. Plays a leadership role in the community They listen to and respond to a community’s concerns and explain the district’s priorities to the public.
    5. Forges consensus A school board will regularly face issues that invite a diversity of strong opinions and passionate beliefs. Their goal should, however, remain the same: to pursue consensus, to reconcile differences, and to reach compromises, all in the service of its students.

Other responsibilities include hiring and evaluating your district’s superintendent, adopting policies that will affect each school in your district, serving as a judicial and appeals body to resolve conflicts, managing the collective bargaining process for the district’s employees, and allocating funds. They are also tasked with other duties, that even if seemingly mundane, might greatly affect you and your child’s everyday life, like deciding on the school calendar, choosing school bus times and routes, adopting new curriculums, and deciding on individual construction projects.

A powerful school board goes beyond the classroom and partners with the community. They should be responding to a community’s hopes for its young people. This can be done through partnerships with local employers, colleges, and nonprofit organizations, bringing in everything from local orchestras to teach about music to job apprentices with middle and high school students.

A school board has a symbolic role as well. The behavior a board demonstrates at public meetings, how well they work as a team, and the relationships that members have with your district’s teachers and administrators and families add up to the climate of a community’s public education. Healthy or dysfunctional, inspired or narrow-minded, school boards can make or break the quality of your local school system.

What’s your school board up to?

If you have a sense of how well your local schools are doing, you probably already have an idea of how well the school board is managing your community’s schools. You can also learn more about your school board by following local news that covers your school district’s issues. Because there are regular open meetings, you can attend them and even ask questions during the open comment period. Can’t make the meetings? Even before the pandemic, most districts aired meetings on local radio and TV stations and posted minutes online. One of the pandemic silver linings has been that districts have found ways to connect more readily with parents and caregivers via Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube, and more. For instance, the Los Angeles Unified School District allows parents to sign up for agenda packets and access meetings online.

Once you’ve read about or listened in on your school board, these questions can help you evaluate whether they are serving your community’s needs:

  • Does the board focus on solving the district’s biggest challenges or spend all their time on less important matters?
  • Does the board listen to their employers, namely, you and your community?
  • Are the members working well together in supporting your community’s goals for its schools or are they failing their district?
  • Do they work in a strong partnership with the public?
  • If there have been conflicts or concerns brought to them from the community, have they been responsive and respectful in their response?

What should I look for in a school board candidate?

Whether you are satisfied with your school board or not, your vote in the next school board election can be instrumental in helping to shape the upcoming board so that it answers the needs of its parents, students, and staff.

When considering a candidate, think first of the hot-button issues important to you and other parents in the district. Are there enough advanced academic offerings? Are there controversies about closing or opening schools? Does the school choice system seem fair? What about transportation? Or curriculum for math or science or reading?

To learn about individual members, you can find online information about their background and why they say they are running.

Questions to ask about a school board candidate.

Does the candidate have:

Genuine interest in improving public schools. Is this a career politician simply climbing the ladder to a higher office, or do they seem sincere about helping local schools?

Knowledge about public schools. Are they aware of the biggest issues in your district? Do they seem to understand your district’s policies, guidelines, needs, challenges, and strengths

A commitment to serving the public. Can they commit the considerable time and energy required for weekly meetings, phone calls, conversations, visits to schools, and professional development seminars and workshops?

A commitment to public education. Do they believe in the importance of public education and that every child is deserving of an outstanding education, no matter what school or neighborhood?

How can I communicate with a school board member?

There are several ways to get in touch with local school board members. Most post their contact information on their school district’s website, including their email address and even their phone number. One of the best ways to engage with all members of your local board is to attend a meeting. Along with public meetings held once or twice a month, school board members, particularly engaged and effective ones, hold town meetings, host focus groups, and poll their community.

Remember: A good school board member is responsive to their constituents.

To learn more, go to the National School Board Association website.