School & District Management

School Boards Are a Political Battleground, But Many Races Still Go Uncontested

By Caitlynn Peetz — October 19, 2023 8 min read
Photo of conference table with microphones.
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If history is any indicator, when people head to the polls in November to vote in their local school board elections, many will find they actually have little say about who fills the seats.

Despite the increased attention in recent years paid to school board elections, a long-standing trend has continued: Many school board races still draw few candidates, meaning there’s no competition for some seats, and some races draw too few candidates to even fill all school board seats.

Last November, even as national groups increasingly focused on school board races, 62 percent of those elections across the country were uncontested, according to an analysis by BallotReady, an organization that collects and analyzes data about local elections to help voters make informed decisions.

The lack of healthy competition could carry longer-term consequences for districts and communities, said Verjeana McCotter-Jacobs, the executive director and CEO of the National School Boards Association.

School board members hold powerful and influential posts, setting districts’ priorities and policies, managing and overseeing budgets, hiring and evaluating superintendents, setting minimum graduation requirements, and signing off on labor contracts, among other tasks.

It’s important that the people in those seats want to be there and are knowledgeable about education, McCotter-Jacobs said.

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” said McCotter-Jacobs, a former school board member herself. “And we want as many qualified, passionate people at the table as possible.”

But, in many cases, incumbents have retained their seats for years without challengers, or newcomers have taken over seats without competition. In some communities, school boards have had to appoint people to fill empty seats because nobody filed to run at all.

In Gibson City, Ill., the district’s superintendent said in 14 years on the job, there’s been one contested school board race and three of the seven current school board members were appointed, according to local media reports from this past spring.

Between 2014 and 2016, there was an average of about 1.8 candidates per seat up for election in school board races each year, according to an analysis by Ballotpedia, a nonprofit website that tracks federal, state, and local elections.

In recent years, school boards and education issues have taken center stage, as politicians and activist groups have focused on how race and gender are taught in schools and the content of school library books. These controversies have emerged after the years of disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

That has caused a somewhat conflicting trend to emerge, experts say: In some respects, the increased tension paired with high stress, long hours, and little-to-no compensation involved with serving on a school board have likely dissuaded some would-be candidates from running.

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Kristin Allan won a nonpartisan race for a seat on the Cherry Creek school district's board in Colorado.
Kristin Allan won a nonpartisan race for seat on the Cherry Creek school district's board in Colorado.
Rachel Woolf for Education Week

On the other hand, activist groups—most notably the conservative group Moms for Liberty—have seized the political moment to recruit and support aligned candidates who otherwise might not have run and brought more attention to school board races that previously may have slipped under the radar.

Those candidates often have a single issue they’re focused on, rather than considering—or understanding—the full scope of a board member’s job, McCotter-Jacobs said.

“That impacts the ability to get quality candidates in general,” she said. “Ultimately, what happens is you have communities that are in an uproar—the pandemic put us in a whole different light, and people are feeling the brunt of that.”

Representatives of Moms for Liberty did not respond to an interview request this week. The organization’s founders are former Florida school board members who, according to the group’s website, “witnessed how short-sighted and destructive policies directly hurt children and families.” Its mission is to fight “for the survival of America by unifying, educating, and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.”

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Moms for Liberty founders Tiffany Justice, right, and Tina Descovich speak at the Moms for Liberty meeting in Philadelphia, Friday, June 30, 2023.
Moms for Liberty founders Tiffany Justice, right, and Tina Descovich speak at the Moms for Liberty meeting in Philadelphia, Friday, June 30, 2023.
Matt Rourke/AP
Federal Moms for Liberty's National Summit: 5 Takeaways for Educators
Libby Stanford, June 30, 2023
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A lack of awareness

It’s possible that some people would step up to run for school board seats, but they’re simply unaware of the need for would-be board members.

Take the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools in North Carolina.

On July 17, a local blog run by volunteer writers featured an article titled, “This is bad—No one has filed to run for school board in Chapel Hill-Carrboro.”

The writers lamented the lack of candidates with just one week left in the filing period and reflected on a past election cycle when a “right-wing” candidate tried to run for office in the Democratic-leaning area. That effort was stifled by other candidates whose values better aligned with the community, they wrote.

Within a day of the article’s publication in mid-July, about 50 people reached out to the group and said they were interested in running if it meant races didn’t go unopposed or without candidates, said Mel Kramer, an editor and board member for the blog.

“All we had to do was just tell people that the need was there, and once people learned that the need was there, they were happy to step up, even though they know that school boards are becoming increasingly politicized systems in the United States,” Kramer said. “Obviously, they really care about the public school system.”

Although the blog identifies itself as a progressive-leaning publication and publishes articles framed through that lens, Kramer said some of the candidates who filed don’t align with those political beliefs. Still, the group is grateful for a diverse and qualified slate of candidates the community can analyze and decide among, she said.

“That’s the way that I think a functioning democracy thrives—having the ability to think about what you prioritize and what you value and assess that against the candidates,” Kramer said.

‘If you’re not actively recruiting,’ people won’t run

In a recent interview with EdWeek, the founders of Run for Something—a political group that recently launched a $3 million pilot program to recruit progressive candidates to run for school board seats—said it’s a disservice to the community when school board races go uncontested.

The group’s goal centers on opposing far-right candidates and ensuring there is competition in school board races.

In most communities, co-founder Amanda Litman said, “if you’re not actively recruiting, there’s a high likelihood that only one person is going to run.”

But would-be candidates face many barriers to running. It’s a time-intensive commitment with little-to-no pay, for one, and school board members in recent years have faced more harassment, so much so that the National School Boards Association in 2021 sent a letter to President Joe Biden seeking federal assistance in countering threats, harassment, and violence.

In that letter, the NSBA said some of the actions could be classified as “domestic terrorism” or hate crimes, sparking backlash from lawmakers, the public, and some state chapters of the organization. The NSBA later apologized to its members and said, “There was no justification for some of the language included in the letter.”

Despite that controversy, it is true that school board meetings have, at times, become dramatic and tense. Meetings have been interrupted with shouting and arguments over things like mask mandates and LGBTQ+ issues.

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Security officer James White wears a mask as protesters hold signs during a Board of Education meeting in Castle Rock, Colo., to discuss the use of masks and other protective measures in Douglas County Schools on Aug. 24, 2021. A federal judge issued a restraining order Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021, against the suburban Denver county's policy allowing parents to opt their children out of a mask mandate at schools, finding that the rule violates the rights of students with disabilities who are vulnerable to COVID-19.
Security officer James White wears a mask as protesters hold signs during a board of education meeting in Castle Rock, Colo., to discuss the use of masks and other protective measures in Douglas County Schools on Aug. 24, 2021.
AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via AP

Still, those instances are the exception, not the norm.

And the work is rewarding, Litman said, so, “anyone who cares about the quality of their schools and the kind of education that kids are getting should consider running for school board.”

Clarifying the role of school boards

Convincing people to run isn’t easy and often involves debunking long-standing misconceptions about the role.

The first step is better educating the public about what school boards do and the benefits of serving on the board, said McCotter-Jacobs of the NSBA.

She suggested that state school board associations host forums in their offices or in communities so people who are interested in school boards’ work can hear about the roles. Those forums should be held year-round, she said, not just during election cycles, and they should focus on the job and its responsibilities, rather than specific issues.

“In many communities, school boards are the largest employer, and, frankly, I think school boards have the heaviest list compared to other agencies,” McCotter-Jacobs said.

While acknowledging the workload of local boards, McCotter-Jacobs did not take a position on whether board members should be paid for their work, saying that is a decision for local boards to make. But she did say boards should consider compensation, as well as providing members with other benefits, like health insurance.

“If we don’t really take a stronger look at [compensation], we risk constantly finding ourselves with school boards that people can’t afford to serve on, and that’s a lost voice,” McCotter-Jacobs said. “I don’t have the silver bullet or golden answer, but I would say there are things districts and states can look at to support boards and make it a little bit easier for people to serve.”

State lawmakers could also make school board jobs more appealing, and it wouldn’t take any more work or money, McCotter-Jacobs said.

If legislators focused less attention on arbitrary education issues and “let school boards do what they do,” she said, it could reduce some tension.

“Oftentimes, on top of everything else you have to do, you’re dealing with some piece of legislation that somebody woke up one day and said, ‘Hey, I think this is a good idea,’ and that only adds to the stress of the job,” she said.

Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.

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