Three years ago, Jasmin Shaheed-Young formed an Indianapolis nonprofit called Rise Indy that was focused on promoting educational equity. She knew that having a school board that looked like the community would be important to her cause, but there was a lot of confusion in the community around what school board members’ roles in education are.
Her solution was to start a program called the Circle City Leaders Program, which recruits women and people of color to run for school board. Three years and two school board election cycles later, all seven of the Indianapolis Public Schools board members were candidates supported by Rise Indy. Four are people of color, and four are women.
“The recruiting work to find school board member candidates that have community ties, especially folks of color, is so important,” Shaheed-Young said. “Because we know the majority of our urban districts have majority folks of color, so that their interests are prioritized, it necessitates folks of color actually sitting in those school board positions.”
As America’s student populations diversify, school board members often don’t reflect the district’s student body. Nearly 90 percent of school board members are white, according to a 2020 EdWeek Research Center survey of board members. Recruiting and retaining school board members of color is a challenge for many reasons, including little to no pay; a lack of background, expertise, and assistance in policymaking; and increasing scrutiny from parents and community members of equitable school policies.
“It’s probably one of the most thankless jobs as elected officials go. And then on top of that, you really don’t get service, you don’t get paid for it,” said Verjeana McCotter-Jacobs, the deputy executive director for the National School Boards Association.
“Oftentimes, I think school board members find themselves on an island, feeling alone and feeling sort of isolated from everything else,” she continued. “But if we could change some of those things and put things in place that make it a little easier to serve, then we would see greater retention.“
Only 38 percent of current board members are planning to return amid the politicization of board races and the national pushback against inclusive lessons and books on race, racism, and LGBTQ issues, according to a survey by School Board Partners, a training and recruitment organization focused on anti-racist school board members.
That presents an opportunity to recruit and retain school board members who represent America’s diversifying student population.
Candidates need guidance and a support network to run
School board members of color are more likely to focus on anti-racism, according to the School Board Partners survey, which is an important consideration for them in recruiting candidates. But when candidates are considering running, they need support on a few basic aspects of coordinating a successful campaign, Shaheed-Young said.
The first is information about the systemic challenges in education, and potential solutions on how to address its failings, she said.
But candidates also need logistical help, including for fundraising, communications and media strategy, and how to build a platform based on issues school board candidates care about. The organization also helps candidates manage their campaign and rely on their support network of family, friends, and coworkers.
“When you have this connection of folks and network of people that are saying ‘Yes, you ready, we will support you,’ ... it allows for folks of color to truly believe that they have a possibility to win and see change on the school board.” Shaheed-Young said. “And then it removes any part of the imposter syndrome that comes naturally, I think, when we talk about communities that have been marginalized.”
Sometimes, people of color and women have to be asked multiple times to run to overcome an underestimation of their own abilities, according to Carrie Douglass, co-founder of School Board Partners. Both Douglass and Ethan Ashley, the other co-founder, are school board members in addition to running an organization that provides support to other elected members across the country.
Recruiting from your own community networks is important
Relying on groups such as the NAACP, advocacy organizations for LGBTQ students, and even the district’s parent-teacher organization for school board recruitment is often effective, according to McCotter-Jacobs from the NSBA. Legal groups that offer pro bono services related to education also are a potential source.
“I think there are different groups like that that we should tap into. And half of those people are already advocating,” she said. “They know a lot about what the needs are around education.”
Current school board members recruiting new ones is also effective, according to McCotter-Jacobs and Douglass.
McCotter-Jacobs will often meet with people who want to serve in the community where she worked as a school board member for 10 years, to answer questions and persuade the right people to run. When she was elected, Douglass’s goal was to have 100 meetings with people of color in the community, and she met regularly with anyone who expressed interest in running.
“I think it’s really meaningful when the current elected officials are asking you personally, andmaking you feel like you would be welcomed and supported and respected on the board,” Douglass said.
Offering pay or staffing will make school board members much more likely to stay
People of color, younger people, and working parents often don’t have the time or financial stability to make running for school board a priority, Douglass said.
Most school board members currently get paid less than $10,000 a year to serve, which means most of them can’t make it their only job. Offering to pay school board members a livable wage, or providing them professional assistance such as staff members dedicated to education policy research who they can go to for questions is crucial in making the elected position more appealing, Douglass and Ashley said.
Some districts across the country are already doing this. Los Angeles, for example, pays its school board members $125,000 per year.
“The idea here is that this is a really big, complicated job. And either board members need to be paid so that they can do the job full time or at least part time and be paid for it,” Douglass said.
School board members of color, or of other historically marginalized identities also need community-building support, to not feel isolated and comfortably be themselves, Ashley said.
“We often need respite, we need support in ways that aren’t just traditional training, but rather, real support around self-care, [professional] development, and practices to bring balance to our lives,” Ashley said. “Because we are used to carrying the weight of the country’s oppression. And that is difficult and heavy weight.”