In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., the local education foundation takes nothing for granted.
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This summer and in the coming fall, it will repeat for the third time its successful campaign to make sure voters understand the importance of the upcoming school board race and know the candidates. It will issue questionnaires to the candidates and post their answers on its Web site.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Education Foundation and the local newspaper will co- sponsor public forums with the candidates. The foundation will also hold a training session for candidates to prepare them for the nuts and bolts of board service.
It began this approach in 1995, as a pivotal election was fast approaching and a study showed voters knew little about the elected body that wields immense power over their schools. With a major school improvement plan taking root, the leaders of the foundation decided the stakes were far too high to stand by and do nothing.
Then only 4 years old and a novice in public relations, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Education Foundation undertook a grassroots public-engagement program that has drawn notice for its success in building a more informed, involved school community.
The political landscape that fall made the school board election an especially important one. It was the first after the old board structure, with nine at-large members, was replaced with one in which six members were elected from districts and three at- large. In that 1995 race, all nine seats were contested.
Meanwhile, the 100,000-student district had brought in a nationally known and controversial reformer, John Murphy, as its superintendent to spearhead what it hoped would be profound improvements in student achievement.
An Invisible Board?
Against that backdrop, the foundation did a survey that showed more than three-quarters of respondents couldn’t name a single board member and didn’t know about the new district seats. Many didn’t even understand the job of the school board.
“We were concerned that the public didn’t know the power of the school board as they were about to elect a new one,” said Corinne A. Allen, who was the executive director of the education foundation at the time, but who now directs the Benwood Foundation in Chattanooga.
The foundation undertook a two-part campaign: to educate voters and to inform and prepare candidates. In partnership with The Charlotte Observer, the foundation sponsored and organized town meetings with candidates, publicizing the events with banners around the city. It created information packets about the district and made them available at city libraries.
It also ran public-service announcements on radio and television, featuring schoolchildren talking about the importance of voting in school board elections.
In addition, the foundation asked candidates to respond to a questionnaire about their positions on key issues, and mailed the results in a brochure to tens of thousands of voters. Part of the brochure took the form of a sample ballot that voters could mark with their choices and take to the polling place. The newspaper published the candidates’ responses, along with editorials about the issues facing the board and the importance of being informed.
It also covered the town meetings and provided moderators.
“The paper was very interested in connecting its readers with government, so it was a natural partnership,” said Tom Bradbury, who is now the executive director of the education foundation, but in 1995 was an associate editor of the Observer.
To prepare the candidates, the foundation supplied them with information packets about the district’s schools and invited them to an orientation session featuring briefings by the superintendent, a retiring school board member, and the district’s financial officer.
Members of the news media also attended, to instruct them on effective communication with the public. Candidates also agreed to attend a two-day leadership seminar if elected, and all the winners followed through, Ms. Allen said.
Many people involved in the campaign believe it boosted voter turnout, though that is hard to substantiate because the local board of elections doesn’t isolate data on school board races.
Carol Merz, the dean of the graduate school of education at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., and a co-author of a 1996 national study of local education foundations, said the vast majority of such groups focus on raising money for specific school programs. It is unusual and “wonderful” for a local education foundation to do heavy public-engagement work, she said, because it can involve the community in policymaking.
John W. Lassiter, the vice chairman of the school board, said he believes strongly that the public-information campaign made a noticeable difference between the 1992 and 1995 elections.
“In 1992, there was no place candidates could go to learn more about the district. By 1995, when I was an incumbent, there was a treasure chest full of information and analysis,” he said. “And the caliber and content of the town forums was much higher. The public debate was more focused on fact- based issues, rather than personality or opinion.
“As a candidate, you could tell people were better informed.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2001 edition of Education Week as Charlotte Foundation Gives Voters A Primer on School Board Races