School & District Management Opinion

The Big Problem With Who Runs for School Boards—and How to Fix It

The coming turnover offers an opportunity
By Carrie Douglass — December 20, 2022 5 min read
Photo of empty chairs at school board meeting.
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The first two years of my first term on my local school board were, in retrospect, a sleepy affair. I was elected in May 2017, following Donald Trump’s taking office, and although interest in politics was up, my experience on the board was still typical of the “before times.”

Everything changed with the pandemic.

With school buildings closed and students learning at home, parents got a front-row seat to their children’s schooling, and they didn’t always like what they saw. Now they felt compelled to scrutinize curriculum choices, library books, teacher quality, and health-care decisions.

School closures, mask mandates, and lies about vaccines and critical race theory resulted in mass school board meetings, which were made more accessible as live streaming became ubiquitous.

School boards make decisions about what we care most about—our children. School districts, funded by taxpayer dollars, are also often one of the largest employers, land and facility owners, and transportation hubs in a jurisdiction. Therefore, it makes sense that democratically elected members should provide public accountability.

The power of school boards also means it is imperative that school boards reflect their communities—in every demographically diverse way imaginable.

The days of board members operating in obscurity are over. The goals must be to ensure that a destructive vocal minority doesn’t take over and that the board knows how to effectively engage the community to lead constructive change. Parents want their voices heard, and school boards should be the conduit to executing what communities want to see from their districts.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit I co-lead published a report with first-of-its-kind data about our nation’s school board members. We researched why people run for school board, what their priorities are, and what support they need to fulfill campaign promises. We paid particular attention to the opinions of elected leaders of color, as they have long been underrepresented. Our findings provide the beginning of a path forward for our nation’s school boards.

Our data made three things clear to us:

  • We must develop ecosystems to recruit, train, and elect school board members who are more reflective of public school families and who are committed to changing a calcified system that isn’t working.
  • We must support those board members to govern effectively between elections when the real work happens.
  • We must change the design of school board work to make the jobs more accessible to a wider cross-section of community members.

Our report,"Empty Seats at Powerful Tables,” highlights data that show the extent to which our nation’s school boards and their leadership are not representative of the families their schools serve across race, gender, age, sexual identity, language, or disability.

The system favors potential candidates who are older, wealthier, and more likely to be white than the average school-age parent.

Board members historically have been far older than the typical school-age parent. Our survey confirmed that a majority of board members are 55 or older. The age gap is a reflection a larger problem with the structure of school boards. With the inherent shortcomings of a job with nominal or no pay, long night meetings, and insufficient training and resources, the system favors potential candidates who are older, wealthier, and are more likely to be white than the average school-age parent. The result is that the parents who know school isn’t working for their children usually don’t run or don’t run again. The status quo is preserved.

As an elected leader in my early 40s, I still need to work full time as I’m in my prime earning years. I also have young children to care for as well as aging parents. My school board job has a big impact on my paid work and family. By comparison, several of my early school board colleagues were retired, with grown children and deceased parents, giving them significantly more available time. How do we restructure the role so younger parents of diverse backgrounds can be present at the decisionmaking table?

Our report highlights a warning and an opportunity—only 38 percent of current school board members surveyed plan to run for reelection. (More than 70 percent of 2016 incumbents ran for reelection.) This could be an opportunity to elect more diverse, representative, and innovative board members, but it also points to the challenges of the job and the need to make it sustainable.

After several cycles of recruiting and supporting more diverse people to run in my district of about 18,000 students, we now have a board that looks much more like our community in age, race, gender identity, and sexual orientation. All seven of us are parents of school-age children who work outside the home. But how long can we sustain this intense volunteer job that now includes regular threats and opponents trying to reverse our progress on equity?

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Perhaps school board members should be paid a living wage. Perhaps board members should have staff to help them research, write, and monitor policies that will change systemic barriers to improving student outcomes and experiences. Perhaps board meetings should be held at different times and locations and with child care, transportation, and food available. Certainly, board members should be provided with free, high-quality training to help them govern, including being able to challenge the status quo.

A lot of attention was paid to which school board members were elected on Nov. 8, but between elections, countless decisions will be made by those elected leaders with much less fanfare. Large crowds gather for a discussion about book bans, but often not for the decisions that appear less insidious on the surface yet have life-changing consequences, especially for the students who depend on school the most. Decisions such as which students have access to which schools, which students get the most experienced teachers, what curriculum is taught, how resources are prioritized, how students are disciplined, and many more.

Let’s reimagine elected school boards so that they can work on behalf of students and families to dramatically improve our public schools and finally make good on the promise of the American dream for all.

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