Administration & Leadership

School Board Elections: How to Decide

September 23, 2013
Photo credit: Berkeley Unified School District via flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

It's school board election time in communities all across the country. Hopefully, most of these are contested elections. It isn't easy finding good people to run for what is usually an unpaid, time intensive and highly challenging job. And however good he or she may be, every incumbent running for reelection should have to stand the test of accountability that a contested election provides.

It’s also a challenge for voters to make the right decision, and it's an especially important challenge for teachers and parents, those most directly affected, to choose wisely.

So I want to share with you the criteria I use in making my selections. I speak as a former school board member who knows the challenge of serving on a board, as a former teacher who knows the value of good board members, and as a parent who knows the value of responsive ones.

Job Skills and Character Traits

My first criterion is whether the candidate can be trusted to demonstrate a commitment to shared governance. This means actively seeking input from parents, teachers and students, and not handling their participation in a perfunctory way. It is also critical that the candidate is not beholden to any particular interest group, the most influential parents of the district, the school district administration or the teachers union. Board members must be supportive of their administrators, but also willing to disagree with them and challenge them when appropriate. The most powerful and active parents should be heard, but not allowed to control the district agenda. And the positions of the teachers union should be highly respected, but never drive the district agenda.

The candidate needs to be someone I can trust to be open about his or her decisions, within the limits of the law. Personnel-related decisions must, by law, happen behind closed doors. But apart from this, board members should be open about their positions and willing to share the thinking behind their decisions. Importantly, this should include openness with the press.

Will this candidate be totally open with the press and the public, or will he or she be someone who will protect the truth if it's considered bad public relations for the district? There is often a fear of anything negative being reported in the press. During my years at San Francisco State University, I frequently heard from local teachers about incidents of school violence, cheating and vandalism in which the school's first response was to make sure none of this leaked out. Sometimes board members can be more concerned with what looks bad for the district than being engaged in openly solving problems.

The people I vote for will be those who I think are secure and confident enough to be open about problems, not just successes, and who won’t worry about "looking bad" or not being reelected. The same applies to the administrators they hire. This is a tough job, with criticism always part of the package. Board members are often blamed for problems they didn't create and cannot meet all the expectations people have of them. It isn't a job for anyone who is thin-skinned and can't take the heat.

Additionally, my preferred candidates will be those who have demonstrated a strong commitment to public education, knowledge of educational issues, and awareness of the best new developments in education. The latter includes project-based learning and, especially, individualized choices for students.

Vigilance Before Voting

Now of course these are my criteria, but I urge you to consider each of them as you make your choices in your communities. Look especially at the past records of each candidate. That record is usually a more reliable gauge than the campaign literature. But also take the opportunity to go to any forums attended by the candidates, including both debates and individual coffee hours, to do your own sizing up. Then, keeping my criteria in mind, trust your instincts.

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