Breaking Board: Why School Board Elections Matter
Last November, I attended an Election Night campaign party with a local school board candidate. Throughout the evening, we checked voting statistics and watched the counts come in. My county has over 300,000 registered voters, and in this election 140,438 participated.
While our school district was just a fraction of that population, each school board candidate received 12,000 to 14,000 votes and in the end, there was a less than 1,200 vote difference between the first- and fifth-place candidates. It had never been more clear to me that my vote was important.
As our story unfolded, I was also sure that we were not alone in this experience. Because it was an election year without a presidential or congressional position in play, other local districts had similarly low voter turnouts: Douglas County at about 50 percent and Jefferson County at about 33 percent. While these percentages are typical for a midterm election, low voter turnout can have a significant influence on school boards.
School boards make decisions on behalf of their constituents
Because school boards make education decisions on behalf of their communities, it is incredibly important for voters to research and question school board candidates, participate in school board elections, and remain engaged once members are elected. In turn, school boards have a duty to engage with constituents and represent them fairly.
The traditional purpose of a school board is to act as the public connection to school districts. School board business includes:
- Developing revenue streams
- Addressing budget issues
- Setting standards
- Advocating for the needs of the public schools
- Reflecting the community’s expectations for their school district
School board activity has always been essential to the health of a school district, but those decisions have a greater impact in the current era. Disagreements over teacher pay, curriculum and funding have led to school boards that are in discord with their surrounding communities.
When do school boards fail to serve their communities?
Like any group of people, school boards aren’t perfect; well-intentioned board members who lack teamwork or organization are not effective. However, more egregious failures occur when candidates elected to a nonpartisan office put their ideological or political beliefs above the best interest of students. Recent examples of this can be found in school board controversies in New York and Colorado.
School board members slash public school funding
In Spring Valley, New York, critics are concerned that the East Ramapo school district’s shift under the leadership of an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic school board is creating a segregated region of private and public schools. The board, most of whom send their children to private religious schools, dramatically slashed revenue streams after winning their spots five years ago.
This has led to a series of draconian funding cuts to public schools and a decidedly separate-but-not-equal education for public school students versus their private-school counterparts. Supporters of the board maintain that these decisions are for the public good.
Board politics affect curriculm review, teacher pay
Since gaining a conservative majority in the November 2013 elections, Colorado’s Jefferson County school board has proved to be dedicated to changing policy to reflect its beliefs. Jeffco student protests against the board’s proposed curriculum review committee to ensure that learning materials “should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law,” gained national press coverage. However, this story eclipsed more controversy, including the district’s new teacher pay structure, the abrupt retirement of a longtime superintendent and allegations of board members conducting official business in violation of the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA).
Outside interests influence school board elections
Critics of politicized school boards fear that money from outside organizations is affecting the outcome of elections and changing what should be local decision-making. As Colorado Public Radio reports, Douglas County is seen as a proving ground for conservative educational policy.
In an unusual move, conservative candidates running for the Douglas County school board in 2009 received endorsements from the county’s Republican Party and television ads paid for by Americans for Prosperity, a Virginia-based conservative advocacy group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers.
The rise of conservative school boards
Supporters of both the Jefferson and Douglas County school boards see the rise of the conservative school board movement as an answer to what they perceive as years of liberally controlled school policy and funding. The bold — and political — moves of different districts are garnering national attention, particularly when citizens feel that the decisions are not in the best interest of students.
Highly politicized districts often have school board meetings that are unwieldy, with public comments sometimes lasting hours. Many displeased constituents engage in protest and community organizing in reaction to school boards that they see falling short of their obligation to citizens.
Recalling a school board member: difficult, expensive, ineffective
Once a school board member is elected, removing him or her before the end of their term is problematic. While there is an option to hold a recall election, the process is often difficult, expensive, and ineffective. People who are unhappy with a school board member’s actions must usually wait to vote for candidates who better reflect their values.
Yet in some areas, politically charged school boards remain. In 2013, Douglas County voters re-elected the conservative majority that many had protested for years. In 2014, Douglas County schools report larger class sizes, fewer teachers, and lower test scores.
If citizens are truly concerned about the important actions of their school boards, they must engage in consistent communication with their representatives. Additionally, it is essential to participate in voting, even in low-turnout elections. Citizens have a responsibility to be well informed about the candidates they are choosing, because school boards should and do answer to the population they represent.
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.Learn More: Click to view related resources.
- "What School Boards Do," National School Board Association
- Michael Powell, "A School Board That Overlooks Its Obligation to Students," New York Times
- "DougCo School Board Election Gets National Attention," Colorado Public Radio