Even during a month when elections dominate the news, local school board elections get too little attention. While not all members of the nation’s 14,000 school boards are selected by voters in partisan or nonpartisan elections, most are. And these elections arguably embody democracy at its most grassroots level.
While they may not attract widespread media attention, school boards play a critical role in steering the progress of the nation’s schools. They choose curricula, set school-year calendars, and negotiate employee labor contracts. They hire, fire, and evaluate school superintendents and approve their goals and policies.
The more collaborative and productive a superintendent-school board relationship is, the more efficiently a school system runs. Yet the superintendent-school board relationship is often fraught—marked by conflict, attempts at micromanagement, and single-issue politics.
Developing a constructive relationship between school boards and district leaders is especially critical now as school systems wrestle with new demands imposed by the coronavirus crisis. In a recent EdWeek Research Center poll, more than half of school board members characterized pandemic-related remote or in-person learning as the biggest challenges they have faced during their tenures.
As important as school boards are, the EdWeek Research Center poll also found that 30 percent of board members say they came to the job “very” or “somewhat” unprepared, although that proportion shrinks over time as school board members learn on the job and from training provided by their state and national associations. Overwhelmingly white, well educated, and middle-income, school board members often do not reflect the families in the school districts they serve, and they may face an upward climb to understand the needs of the entire district, apart from the geographic subdivisions they come from.
What can school district leaders do to ensure a quick transition and a smooth relationship for their school board members? Plenty, according to educators and experts, and this special report highlights some of those strategies, including broad community training to interest new candidates in the job and governance approaches to help guard against micromanagement. You can also find more results from the EdWeek Research Center poll as well as advice to school board members from peers already on the job. Our hope is that the information will prove helpful in the months ahead as school districts nationwide onboard the next class of citizens joining their local school board.
A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2020 edition of Education Week