I want to run for school board. What books/resources should I get?
February 12, 2017 3:19 PM   Subscribe

I am not an educator but want to make sure my school district is the best it can be. What should I read/watch/listen to about education, education theory, and more so I can make a difference?

I live in Northern New Jersey (Bergen County) where every town has a school district. My area is pretty affluent as well. My two kids are about to start public school and I want to make sure the school they attend continues to be inclusive, welcoming, and successful. In short, I want science to be taught and trans rights affirmed. I'm interested in running for the local school board but I am not an educator. If you are an educator or active on school boards, what should I read/know before campaign season that would actually help me if I ended up on the board?
posted by Stynxno to Law & Government (8 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Start by attending the meetings of your school board.
posted by Carol Anne at 3:22 PM on February 12, 2017 [6 favorites]

I'm a very active school volunteer who has thought about running for school committee. Most of the school committee members in our town are not educators, so I don't think that should be an issue for you. I agree that the best thing you can do by far is to start attending the meetings. You'll get the best sense of the issues they deal with, especially budgetary issues.
posted by Bresciabouvier at 3:26 PM on February 12, 2017

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli.
posted by mdrosen at 4:09 PM on February 12, 2017 [10 favorites]

Join your local parent advisory committee and your district parent committee, if there is one. Your local school may let you join ahead of your kids attending. You can also start going to meetings and join standing committees of the school board.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 4:32 PM on February 12, 2017

I served five years on my local school board. Two campaigns. (I even put in place the first bullying police in my state protecting trans students!) I have many thoughts, feel free to memail me. Also if you poke through my comment history, you'll find a lot of stuff.

I recommend three things strongly:
1) Look through a LOT of the information at the New Jersey School Board Association, which provides information and training for school boards. They often have "running for office" information and they often have classes, trainings, or online trainings for people who want to get involved. I don't know about New Jersey specifically, but they'll have a lot of "101" materials about different aspects of school governance, school board campaigning, and that sort of thing. VERY HELPFUL.

2) Learn the ins and outs of your state's school finance rules. (NJSBA will also have lots of info.) The #1 thing people run on around here is "We'll take all that money from technology/buildings/buses and use it to pay teachers!" Except that's illegal. I mean most people don't know that and it won't prevent you from getting elected, but when you get on the board you'll be like "... oh. So, um, all of my budget ideas are illegal? Well crap."

3) Invite some current school board members to lunch or coffee. They'll be happy to talk with you about the process of running, what it's like to serve, what they think the big issues facing the district are, etc.

As you're particularly interested in science, find out how much curriculum power local school boards have. In my state, not a lot -- the curriculum is set by professional educators in the district, and the school board is expected to rubber stamp it. They can reject it wholesale but can't revise it. (In other states apparently rando parents get to set curriculum, that's madness.) It's awesome to have an advocate for science on the board even if you have no curriculum power! You have a lot of power to bring attention and budget to the science departments. But you may not have any power over the curriculum directly. So look into that too.

On school board you spent a LOT of time on HR (in general, but especially as it relates to administrators); lawsuits against the district; contracts; buildings & grounds & repairs of them; handing out awards; and that kind of thing. You spend very little on actual educational stuff, and most of that will be reviewing curriculum and yearly reports on achievement; if it's working right, the school board is supervising the business end of the schools properly so that the professional educators can do their educatin' thing. Honestly I probably spent more time on the problem that we had boilers between 85 and 110 years old in several buildings that required a unionized steamfitter with special expertise in old systems, and had to pass various safety inspections yearly, and periodically we had to hire a blacksmith to custom fabricate a replacement part, than I did on math curriculum -- and that was during the switch to Common Core when we spent TONS of time on curriculum. To me that sort of thing (with the boilers) was honestly really interesting! But it may not be quite what you're expecting when you go into it. I certainly wasn't! Lots of meetings where you spend 40 minutes on how to repaint a school (using low-VOC, when students aren't around, at what cost) and zero minutes on scholastics. I mean I can give you chapter and verse on how clerestory windows affect student achievement! (They're good.) But that definitely wasn't what I was expecting when I started!

I really enjoyed my service and in general I recommend it (although my second campaign was beset by particularly virulent local insanity). But it's a lot more boring and finance-oriented than you think going in. Otoh, you get to go hand out awards at grade school step competitions and chess competitions and young authors' contests and track meets, which is freakin' awesome.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:49 PM on February 12, 2017 [14 favorites]

I am serving my 10th year and 4th (and final) term on my local school board. I was elected or re-elected all four times in a competitive campaign. My district is in Westchester County (near you).

I cannot tell you what will get you elected in your town because I do not know the specifics of your town (natch) and because what gets you elected is not always the same as what makes you a successful board member. If you look up the actual qualifications needed to run in NJ, I suspect they are similar to here in NY and here in NY the qualifications are simply that you can read and write, that you lived in your district for the 12 months preceding the election and that you are an eligible voter. (You do not even need be registered to vote, just eligible to do so if you choose.)

Without being able to speak specifically to your town, I think to be successful it requires several things. Here in NY, we do not run on a party line. We run as candidates. I am not sure about NJ, but I suspect it to be the same. I myself am a registered voter with no party affiliation. To be honest, I have no idea what if any party my fellow board members are registered as although I do know how two of them lean. Stand on the issues, not on a label.

Every town has different factions. The two main ones are the residents with students in the schools and the ones without. Since school taxes are based on real estate value vis a vis your neighbors, and RE taxes in NJ are HIGH, in general, the empty nesters or the no kids in school will want to keep budgets down while those with school age children in the district will focus less on that. As Eyebrows McGee pointed out above about her district in Illinois, a lot of school board work is financial.

In fact, in NY State law the charge to the school board is to set budgets, hire the superintendent and to make policy. That is pretty much it. Policy and budgets are blunt tools to use to accomplish specific things. To me, in the abstract and even in practice, the most important decision a Board can make is the hiring of the Superintendent. The Superintendent will set the tone and the culture as well as the curriculum and the draft budget for the district. My district's budget with approximately 4,000 students in k-12 is about $120 million per year. The Superintendent these days needs both academic chops as well as management and leadership skills. All that before their communication skills too.

I point this out for several reasons. One, the key to keeping your district inclusive which to me has two meanings. is the staff the Superintendent hires. To me, inclusive can be interpreted in the broad sense of welcoming to all and also in the special education sense of including the special ed students in the general education classrooms. My district is very intentionally an inclusive district. We do not send a lot of students out to special programs or to say BOCES special education programs. We believe in mainstreaming our students. The superintendent hires the director or assistant superintendent for special education. That person will establish the culture and direction of the district with respect to special education.

Two, the way that a board member can influence specific programs or the direction of the district is through the hiring and firing of a Superintendent. The superintendent is somewhat of a gate keeper to and from the board. For instance, a board would have no ability to proactively grant a teacher tenure. The superintendent would need to recommend that person. A lot of decisions are made before the board gets a chance in that the superintendent does not even have to bring it up to influence a no decision. They do need approval for a yes.

I am not sure how you mean inclusive, but I think the biggest mistake one could make is to run for the board as a one issue candidate. Candidates that run because they don't want a bond passed or because they think the district should revamp the whatever department have a big issue with their service as soon as that issue is adjudicated. The reasons to run for the board should be broad based and educational. It may sound like a cliche to run because you want to help the students, but it is true. (Be able to answer, Help which students in which way?) It sounds to me that you do have that broader perspective which is good.

Getting back to the factions I mentioned above, if it were me, when running, I would be careful about aligning myself with any one faction or any one cause. To get elected you will need a coalition of voters, a broad selection of residents. If you get too aligned with the elementary parents who want to build a new playground group, you will not gain the confidence of the ones who want to redo the middle school science wing, etc, etc.

If I were your campaign manager, I would advise you to promise to research all the issues before voting, to be fiscally responsible while educationally supportive and that you will be as transparent as the law allows. Before I ran in my town I did some of my own analysis on what it took to get elected in my district. Sadly, we only get about a total or 1200 voters out of about 10,000+ who turn out. To me, the key to getting elected was to get about 100 people who otherwise would not turn out to turn out and to vote for you. The issues are important, but turnout even more so. IF every person who told me they would vote for me or did vote for actually did, I would have had twice as many votes as I did. Tactically, email (or use social media) to remind your friends and associates to vote and to vote for you. If your children play soccer or gymnastics or art class or whatever, ask the parents of the other children to vote for you. Do not assume they will because they know you and like you. You need to send an email the week before and again the night before the vote. My first year, I had an email list of about 500 residents.

As an aside, getting abck to people saying they voted for you, in our town, the school board is among the many groups asked to walk in the memorial day parade. Local politicians and luminaries are too. There is a staging area where we line up in marching order pre event. It turns out that both a former President and his former presidential candidate wife life in my district as well as the NY State governor. My kids, except for a few years in their early teens wanted to walk with me. My daughter in particular wanted to meet Hilary Clinton. In the staging area, her aide introduced my daughter and me to her. In an effort at small talk, she asked why I was included in the parade. I told her I was on the school board and then asked if she voted for me. Her quick witted response was, "Did you win?" "Of course," I said. "Well then I voted for you", she replied. I add that Bill is extremely open and friendly to the locals. Gov Cuomo, not so much. He was a d**k.

I further echo Eyebrow's post above in several ways. First and foremost, ask a board member to meet with you for coffee or a beer. We all are always willing to describe the job, and talk shop. Every board member I have met in Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam counties, and there are hundreds of us, has been willing to give a resident advice or time to listen.

Also, board service is about personnel, legal, and financial matters. One of my favorite parts of board service is the few times a year we get to go on learning walks and actually go inside a classroom. They are far and few between.

I would also tell you like another answer to attend as many board meetings as you can in advance of the election. Contact the PTA and let them know you are running and want to hear their input.

I realize I can go on for a while in this stream of consciousness way. I will spare you (all). Feel free to PM me and I will answer any question or even meet with you if you want.


(As to the specifics of science taught and trans rights affirmed, I am sure that your board is going to be in compliance with NJ laws and that the state has a big say in curriculum. Having said that, locally, the emphasis can change so definitely advocate.)
posted by JSM at 9:04 PM on February 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm a veteran teacher who was also a Town Meeting member and went to a LOT of school committee meetings.

The first thing you need to do is to start attending those meetings so you get an actual sense of their scope and input. School Committees in general do NOT decide curriculum or interpretation of federal/state laws in their local schools. Far from it.

Here in Massachusetts, our school committees do mostly budget stuff: they work with the Superintendent and fine-tooth-comb annual budget reviews. They work on getting maximum federal reimbursements for special education. They wade through mind-boggling amounts of laws to decide if a school should be refurbished versus rebuilt.

It's not super sexy and they have no say in curriculum. And that's as it should be because they're not educators -- they're money people.

If you have specific passions you'd like to share with a school, you may be best off working with the PTA/PTO and fundraising for teachers to get grants for science clubs and things like that.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 5:30 AM on February 13, 2017

Hi all! Thank you to everyone who responded. You helped my thinking and I learned a lot.

I'm a local clergy person so I'm used to long meetings talking about property, budgets, and human resource issues (who knew the dangers flat roofs can bring to a 70 year old building?) I mentioned LGBT issues because that's an issue where I'm most visible. Last year I was on the cover of the local paper while speaking before a local school board in support of trans rights. As I spent more time on this question, I realized the hiring/firing issues will be problematic for me. I have congregants who serve as teachers in the district and I am uncomfortable being their pastor and their "boss" at the same time.

It sounds like the PTO, showing up at board meetings, and writing letters is where my work will be.
posted by Stynxno at 3:44 AM on March 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

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