Do School Board Elections Matter?

Those of us who work in education, take our children’s and our community’s education seriously, and worry about how our economy will hold up long enough to support us in old age need to take school board elections seriously.

Once in the ballot booth or staring at the early or absentee ballot, the names of school board candidates often look similar making it hard to decide. It’s likely that many just skip this section. In small communities, like the one in which I vote, such elections are often an extension of school itself. Popularity matters. Professional qualifications to be a fiduciary on tens of millions of dollars does not seem to matter as much.

School districts are unusual entities. They are unlike nonprofit and for-profit corporations where the board steers and owns the responsibility for the corporate entity. In those cases, board requirements are often stringent and come with training and a clear understanding of the legal liability held by board members. On the other hand, school boards and corporate boards are similar in that they hire and fire the chief executive officer or superintendent. This is a key role of all boards: measuring and evaluating the chief executive and the people they supervise.

However, unlike nonprofit and for-profit boards, school boards are not held accountable for the product of schools—the performance of their students in school, and hopefully well into the future. States publish school ratings and rankings based on annual tests. Generally, there is little consequence to superintendents or principals if those numbers go down. Only infrequently would a school board work to make sure benchmarks are in place and to a call for an investigation if performance slips.

Yet, people when voting for school board members often judge prospective board members by generalities made about the quality of schools, the size of classrooms, academic and occupational tracks, and hopefully, the equity. In the end, it’s who you know or feel comfortable with, not necessarily about whether all students are given a chance to succeed.

In our small town, we have four board members running for two positions. One is a ten-year incumbent, a doctor. Two are very active and have been for years in the PTO and other school and community activities. Knowledge of the local setting is critical. However, most non-school boards look hard to recruit professionals. Lawyers, accountants, and executives bring a healthy and seasoned counterbalance to those board members who are an extension of the school because of their involvement with the school as parents or as retired teachers or staff.

The message here is that school boards need to be as professional as possible so that measurement and outcomes, fiscal responsibility, strategy, and contingencies are well managed to ensure stability for the schools. That stability is what allows strong leadership, committed teachers, involved parents, and motivated teachers to thrive. It’s not enough to care and contribute. The professionalization of school boards should be a community responsibility