This piece originally appeared with Education Post.
School boards (in some states “school committees”) sit at the intersection of civic engagement, local politics, and community service. The school board is a team of individuals who want to affect the direction of their school district and are willing to give their time to make a difference. They come from a variety of backgrounds—full-time parents, lawyers, small business owners, corporate executives, accountants, farmers, health care workers and teachers.
Even though they are increasingly visible, school boards may be the most misunderstood part of public education systems. Few in the community have sat through an hours-long board meeting or read through the board meeting agenda and minutes. Most people do not understand the role of governance in public education.
The vast majority of school board directors earn their seat by winning a local election. Are you interested in getting involved? Let’s explore the boundaries, requirements, and strategy in running for school board.
BASIC ELIGIBILITY: WHO CAN RUN FOR SCHOOL BOARD?
If you are interested in running for the school board, check the state and district eligibility requirements. You can find eligibility requirements and more information about running for school board on the state department of education website, the state school board association website, and/or your local school district website. (See the end of this article for links for your state.) But here are some general guidelines.
Other than Hawaii, whose public schools are led by a governor-appointed board rather than being locally elected, school boards are elected at a local level. All states enforce a residency requirement, along with a minimum age and/or voter registration requirement. The vast majority of states will also bar candidates who have a felony conviction or other specified criminal record, like Colorado which specifically bars anyone convicted of a sexual offense against a child.
Nearly all states have the following eligibility requirements:
- At least 18 years of age and/or a registered voter
- A resident of the district in which they are running
- Not a convicted felon (Some states specify the restricted felony like embezzlement in Delaware and Colorado mentioned above. Most states have a more overarching prohibition against all felony offences.)
- Not an employee of the district
Some states may also require or restrict eligibility based on the following:
- Hold a high school diploma or equivalent
- Be able to read and write
- Not be related to/reside with a current member of the school board
- Not hold another civil office or municipal position (like a commissioner, district auditor, or city council)
- Length of district residency (many require one year prior to election, some require less than a year, Wisconsin requires 28 consecutive days)
Once you’ve determined whether you can run for your local school board, you’ll need to determine whether you’re running to represent a geographic zone or the community as a whole. In some school districts, candidates run “at-large,” representing all of the constituents within that district. Other districts may subdivide their district into zones and require school board candidates to run for the seat based on where they reside.
There are often conflict-of-interest rules to note before deciding to run. For example, if a district employee wins an election for school board within the same district, they would be required to resign their district employment position before being seated on the school board of the district. Similarly, there may be clauses prohibiting a person from candidacy for school board if they hold another civil office or if they live with or are related to a person already serving on the school board.
WHAT DOES A SCHOOL BOARD HAVE THE POWER TO DO?
School board candidates must understand the board’s main tasks and authority. Too often, people decide to run for school board without a strong understanding of the collective governance model of school boards and how the role of school board director (or trustee) operates. They will often make campaign promises focused on a driving issue or philosophy. If their campaign isn’t aligned with the core work of the school board, they may make promises they cannot keep.
For example, a candidate who promises “to fire an athletic coach” misjudges the authority of the board and lacks understanding of the role. The school board only directly hires a few positions, the superintendent being the most universal and important. The district administration conducts the hiring of all remaining positions. The decision to fire staff must go through a legal process, and only should reach the board if recommended by the superintendent. If a position is recommended for elimination or if an individual is recommended for dismissal, the board will make the decision based on majority vote. A candidate who focuses their campaign on one small decision outside of the authority of the school board will be frustrated and will disappoint their community.
The authority of the board is granted by the state legislature, and the following decisions are where most school boards will spend their time:
- Hiring and evaluating the district superintendent
- Allocating resources by approving the district’s budget. In about half of states, school boards may levy local taxes.
- Reviewing, revising, and adopting board policies which act as local law and can number 250+
- Approving curriculum, textbooks, and other instructional resources
- Adopting (not creating) the annual school calendar
- Setting district priorities but giving input to and adopting a comprehensive and/or strategic plan
- Making the decision to open new schools
- Closing schools for consolidation or based on the health and safety of staff and students
- Holding hearings for student/staff discipline issues that rise to the level of the board
- Working with district and school administration to make decisions related to
- Access and use of school facilities
- Providing student transportation
- Negotiating with collective bargaining units
- Meeting compliance for food service programs
- Approving and evaluating co-curricular programs
School boards work collaboratively to make high-level decisions, set future goals, monitor progress toward those goals, and act as a conduit for community priorities. School boards do not run the district, but rather ensure the district is run well. They are focused on governance, not management, spending most of their time planning for the future while engaging with the present realities. They can be a transformational force in a district by hiring inspiring leaders, resourcing for equity, and aligning school practices with community priorities.
Do these decisions excite you? If so, you have the mindset it takes to serve your community well. But only you can determine the bottom-line reason for your candidacy and explain it to the voters.
WHY DO YOU WANT TO SERVE ON YOUR LOCAL SCHOOL BOARD?
Before launching your candidacy, define why you want to run. Make sure your why aligns to the scope and authority of the role. While the school board as a whole can have significant impact on student safety, success, and achievement, school boards operate within a defined authority, specific procedures, and a limited scope of decision-making. You also need to understand the responsibility of school board service and how it will impact your life.
Some states, including Florida, California, South Carolina, and Virginia provide a stipend, but in most states serving on the school board is a volunteer position. The time commitment for service is difficult to estimate because it varies from district to district and depends on the issues being presented to the board for decisions.
National School Board Association survey data shows that leading into 2018 the majority of school directors spent over 15 hours per month with 40% spending between 20-40 hours per month. That’s a lot of time for little or no financial compensation. It’s also an equity issue for parents and community members who literally can’t afford to take that time away from their jobs and their families.
According to national survey data, in addition to being recruited to run for school board, the following were the top reasons why individuals decided to run:
- To ensure our children’s schools are the best they can be
- To give back to my community
- To fix specific issues in the schools or the district
- To represent my constituency on school-related issues
Since the global pandemic disrupted school operations starting in 2019, school directors report spending more time in their role than in previous years due to changing legislation, revised health and safety plans, and longer board meetings. Colorado reports their school directors spending an average of 45 hours per month.
What is YOUR reason for seeking this local office? How can you get your community behind you?
ARE YOU READY TO RUN A POLITICAL CAMPAIGN?
School board campaigns can vary wildly. The scope and nature of your campaign will likely depend on the following:
- Size of your district
- Perceived power of the school board by your community
- Current political climate (both nationally and statewide)
- Competition for open school board seats
For some districts, school board positions are not competitive, and new members may need to be actively recruited to run. In smaller districts, candidates may file the paperwork, send a few emails, and be elected having run unopposed. In more competitive districts, candidates may need to fundraise, attend multiple campaign events, publicly debate other candidates, and run against several individuals for one seat. In the nation’s largest districts, school board campaigns can hire staff and are supported financially by state and even national groups hoping to have their views represented at the local level. There is no standard school board campaign either nationally or even across your state. However, campaigns may be similar within counties or regions of similarly sized school districts.
According to national survey data published in 2018, 75% of school board campaigns spent less than $1,000, and over 70% of those surveyed characterized their campaign victory as “very easy” or “somewhat easy.” However, the focus on school boards has increased in recent years, the increased attention bringing increased interest in and commitment to candidacy. A newspaper in Ohio reported that 2021 saw a “50% increase in [school board] candidates since 2017.” In November of 2021, CNN reported on the increased political organizing and funding for school board campaigns across the nation.
Regardless of the size and visibility of a school board campaign, it must follow all campaign finance laws set by the state. This primer by an attorney at Michigan Association of School Boards provides guidance for candidates in that state. This overview of school board candidacy in California urges candidates to become familiar with the state’s Political Reform Act and cautions them that there may be even more local ordinances that are more stringent than the state.
CAN YOU HANDLE THE PAPERWORK?
Each state (and sometimes school district) has its own set of processes, timelines, and forms for declaring candidacy. California offers this candidate toolkit to support those running for local office, the PA School Board Association offers a legal considerations document, and Oklahoma state election board offers a comprehensive document with all their forms and checklists contained. To find out the correct forms and requirements for you, check with state and county election offices, your school district, and the state school boards association.
There are some components that are common among many states:
- Official form declaring candidacy: This form must be filed at a particular place, by a specific deadline, and sometimes in a specific way. Requirements may include notarization and inclusion of a filing fee. In some states, candidates must file under a political party, in other states they can cross file, and in at least one state associating with a political party is prohibited.
- A statement of financial interest or financial disclosure form: This form pertains to the state’s conflict of interest and/or ethics laws that prohibit a public official from receiving direct financial benefit from the decisions made while serving on the school board.
- A criminal history or affidavit attesting to clean criminal history: This form is necessary for states whose statutes prohibit someone who has been convicted of a crime from holding public office.
- Nominating petitions: Not all states require petitions, but many do (including but not limited to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan). The number of required signatures can vary. The petitions may require party affiliation or not.
DO YOU KNOW WHEN YOUR STATE ELECTS ITS SCHOOL BOARDS?
Map out the deadlines specific to your state and county. Some locales require candidates to file many months before the general election because a primary election runs first. Other states allow for a shorter timeline between declaring candidacy and the election. Some elections take place in the spring while other states hold their primary in the spring with general elections aligning to other state office elections in the fall. In New Hampshire, each district sets its own filing deadlines and processes even as they all must comply with state campaign finance and election laws.
To find out more about when school board elections are held in your state, Ballotpedia’s school board elections may offer some guidance.
WHAT RESOURCES CAN YOU ACCESS?
In addition to the resources linked throughout this article, a list of additional resources organized by state have been provided below. An education organization created a school board lookup tool. Ballotpedia created its own state-by-state tool for election data. For a link to your state’s school board association website, click here.
The following links are meant to provide the most comprehensive resources available to school board candidates in your state. Many of these resources are materials developed by the state school boards association/association of school committees. When those were not available, a more general link to resources was provided.
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
*Hawaii does not have publicly elected school boards