Opinion: Hot-button issues not core of school board work

U.S. school enrollment has dropped by nearly 3 million students from 2019 to 2020. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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U.S. school enrollment has dropped by nearly 3 million students from 2019 to 2020. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Success is also about making sound financial decisions and implementing policies that ensure all students get the education they deserve.

When people run for school board these days, they often are motivated to campaign on a controverisial topic. That’s according to Ballotpedia, a nonprofit that tracks political elections in the U.S.

In an analysis of school board elections in 463 school districts in 2021, the organization found elections that were once uncontested had drawn candidates who were “galvanized by one issue or another.”

Three issues came up the most. The most oft-cited issue was race in education, more specifically, the teaching of critical race theory. The second most frequently cited issue was school policies on the pandemic – that is, requirements to wear masks or get vaccinations, or school reopening. The third most-cited was sex and gender in schools, such as gender-specific facilities.

As of January 2022, Ballotpedia discovered 287 school districts in 25 states where candidates took a position on race in education; 199 school districts in 23 states where candidates took a position on responses to the coronavirus pandemic; and 144 school districts in 18 states where candidates took a position on sex and gender in schools.

A worrisome trend

As a former school board member – and as a researcher who studies educational leadership and policy – I find it worrisome when polarizing issues generate so much attention from candidates. The reason I worry is that I know from firsthand experience that being an effective school board member is never just about taking a stance on a few hot-button topics. Rather, it’s about much broader issues, such as meeting the educational needs of all students in the school district.

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Casey D. Cobb

Credit: contributed

Casey D. Cobb

Credit: contributed

caption arrowCaption
Casey D. Cobb

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Too often, support for candidates hinges on the positions they take on the most controversial issues. For instance, in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, speaking on behalf of his state’s Republican Party, pledged to withhold support from “any Republican candidate for school board who supports critical race theory in all 67 counties or supports mandatory masking of schoolchildren.”

As impassioned as people may be about issues like mask requirements, keeping schools open or confronting issues of race in the curriculum, running a school district is about much more than any one of those single issues. With that in mind, here are three actions that future school board candidates should be prepared to take.

1. Set district policy

A primary function of the school board is to develop, review and approve district policy. These policies can include implementing state mandates – such as establishing high school graduation requirements – or formulating a plan to evaluate teachers.

Some policies take on broad issues that affect all students. For instance, a policy might express a goal to make sure all students have access to the internet at home. Other policies might deal with smaller matters, such as whether home-schooled students can participate in extracurricular activities at the local public school.

2. Make tough budget decisions

One of the most difficult tasks that school board members must do is decide how to spend the school district’s limited revenue.

The vast majority of a district’s budget – about 80% to 85% – goes to personnel costs, such as salaries and benefits for school staff. Paying for these employee expenditures is becoming more challenging because of the rising cost of health insurance.

To stay within budget, school board members may have to cut positions or programs. It’s usually a matter of assessing tradeoffs: Do we cut our gifted and talented program to keep our school safety officer? Do we cut teaching positions to make the budget, and if so, which ones?

Each decision comes with consequences. For instance, cutting a gifted and talented program would make some families upset. Continued funding of a night school program might require a series of budget reductions in other areas, such as field trips or late buses.

A tough budget choice I remember facing as a school board member was deciding whether to renovate an outdated and undersized school theater. The board members all agreed the theater was in desperate need of an upgrade but decided to put off the theater upgrade to deal with other needs. The high school would soon need a new roof and boiler that ultimately took priority.

3. Select a superintendent

Selecting a district leader is critically important. So is deciding whether to keep or get rid of one. A good superintendent can make or break a district. The superintendent is the face of the school community and the district’s instructional leader.

Superintendents work with the school board to set the vision and goals for the district and then make sure they are achieved. They also hire and manage principals and other district leaders. Superintendents are expected to provide for the safety of children and staff and be good stewards of district finances.

Finding a good superintendent involves looking for leaders who have a proven track record in the areas of importance. Do they have a history of improving student achievement? Have they created a positive school climate and culture? Are they effective communicators?

If a school board chooses an ineffective superintendent, it usually sets a district back and the board ends up having to spend time and money to replace them.

A key distinction of American democracy is that candidates can develop platforms as they see fit, and it’s up to voters to decide if a particular candidate will represent their concerns. But when it comes to running a school system, it’s important to keep in mind that it involves much more than taking a stance on a few controversial issues. It’s also about making sound financial decisions and implementing policies that ensure all students get the education they deserve.

Casey D. Cobb is Neag Professor of Educational Policy, University of Connecticut. This piece originally appeared in The Conversation, a nonprofit news source dedicated to unlocking ideas from academia for the public.

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