Run for Something: The Importance of Serving on a School Board
MIKE PHILLIPS (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Professor of Geology at Illinois Valley Community College, Oglesby, IL, and CATHERINE A. RIIHIMAKI (email@example.com) is the Associate Director of the Science Education Council on Science and Technology at Princeton University, Princeton, NJ.
One important way you can serve both your local community and the larger community of science (and geoscience) educators is to serve on a local school board. Public and private K-12 education relies on the service of community members willing to provide their time and expertise. A school board functions best when it includes members from a wide range of personal and professional backgrounds, and geoscience educators can add important insight. Becoming an active member of a local board or civic organization presents opportunities to participate in the development of community policy instead of reacting to the announcement of policies that may be counter to good science. Board service can involve a significant commitment of time and effort and can be frustrating at times, but we have found serving on our local school boards rewarding and enlightening.
A school board's duties have been summarized this way by the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB): "As the corporate entity charged by law with governing a school district, each school board sits in trust for its entire community." As such, "the board clarifies the district purpose, connects with the community, employs a superintendent, delegates authority, monitors performance, and takes responsibility for itself." (IASB, 2017)
School boards develop and oversee the school budget, set school policy, select and work with the top administrators, deal with some personnel and student issues that cannot be otherwise addressed by the school administration, and may set local taxes. Board members are not administrators and should not be directly involved in the day-to-day operations of the school. A typical school board meeting might include reviewing and approving expenditures and hiring decisions made by administrators; listening to the concerns of parents, students, faculty and staff; identifying and prioritizing district needs; and discussing, revising, and approving school policy documents.
Getting Involved, Running for the Board
Becoming involved in your local school district can begin by volunteering in the classroom. Teachers are often open to having a content expert talk to their students, and children love to bring in their favorite rock or fossil to share with their classmates and learn more about what it is. This is a good way to learn more about the school, the teachers and administrators, and the children who are served. Attending a few school board meetings is the best way to learn about the board and its duties, the top school administrators, the issues facing the district, and, of course, who serves on the board. You can also find out how board members are selected and other background information for candidates or new board members.
If the board is appointed (as is common for private schools), you will need to learn about the process by which new board members apply and are selected and then introduce yourself to the responsible parties and express your interest in a position. If the board is elected, you will need to learn about the qualifications and requirements that must be met to appear on the ballot. Requirements typically include collecting signatures on a nominating petition and filing with the local election authority. Paperwork, signature requirements, filing deadlines, and campaign finance regulations are all important details to research and follow. Even running as a write-in candidate can include requirements such as filing a statement of candidacy to ensure votes cast for you are counted. The state and/or local election authorities and the school may provide a guidebook with sample forms to interested people. The election may be partisan (party affiliation is indicated on the ballot) or non-partisan (no party affiliation is indicated on the ballot).
You should campaign even if the election is not contested (i.e., there are not more candidates than open seats). The purpose is to let voters know who you are and what you hope to contribute to the school. While you can use a variety of techniques including social media, it is a good idea to attend school and community events and introduce yourself to people, listen to their concerns, and discuss your ideas. Important opportunities include school sporting and cultural events, fundraisers, parent organizations, faculty and staff unions, the chamber of commerce, and other events and groups interested in the school and its success. School board elections that do not coincide with state of federal elections usually have low turnout, so focusing on voters who are likely to cast a ballot is important.
Organizations may be able to help you campaign as you consider strategies and fundraising. For example, 314 Action empowers scientists to run for office at all levels of government, and Run For Something encourages more engagement in local government through running for local seats. Finding local mentors who have run for office in your area can be incredibly helpful for determining how to campaign in your particular district.
Serving on a Board
Once elected, you should seek training on board duties and expectations and the laws that govern board members and actions. Some states require new board members to attend training that covers specific topics such as rules and regulations governing meetings, personnel evaluation, confidentiality, and sexual harassment. This training is usually available from the state association of school boards and may be written, online, and/or in-person. Most school boards will have a budget line to cover board member expenses for training.
Each state has an association of public-school boards and most states have a similar association of private school boards. These associations provide guidance, training, and leadership search assistance and advocate for policies at the state level. The National School Boards Association, the National Association of Private, Catholic, and Independent Schools, National American Indian and Alaska Native Council of School Board Members, National Black Council of School Board Members, and the National Hispanic Council of School Board Members provide similar services at the national level.
Boards typically have at least one regular meeting of the full board each month to hear public comment, pay bills, consider board business, and receive updates from the administration. Board members should receive a packet of information prior to each meeting that includes an agenda and materials for approval, discussion, and information. Board meetings typically follow Robert's Rules of Order. All public-school board meetings are open to the public, although the board may enter closed sessions to discuss certain topics such as personnel and student issues. At the first few meetings, you are likely to learn a lot about the school, its budget, the people that work there, the students, and the other board members. And the learning never stops; each meeting will be a combination of the familiar and the unique. Being an effective board member requires careful listening, a willingness to share thoughts and ask questions, and being open to new ideas.
School boards usually have committees that work on specific areas such as budget and finance, transportation, curriculum, safety, and facilities. Board members are expected to serve on one or more committees and may ask to be assigned to committees that correspond with their personal interests or expertise. Some board committees may include non-board members, such as parents and teachers, in order to broaden the perspectives represented and reduce the work of board members. Committees may meet monthly or occasionally, depending on the needs of the board and the area addressed by the committee. Committee meetings are typically open to the public and subject to rules similar to those governing meetings of the full board.
What You Can Accomplish
As a board member, you will be in a position to advocate for an accurate and rigorous science curriculum. Teachers will appreciate having someone on the board who understands education from the perspective of a practitioner, and science teachers often welcome the presence of a science educator. Because board members often defer to the expertise other members have based on professional background or personal experience, a geoscience educator might be called upon to provide insight into a wide variety of issues dealing with science as well as teaching and learning. This can range from the types of equipment needed in the science lab, the contents of a textbook, the qualifications of a science teacher, and curriculum that some might consider controversial. Geoscience educators can play an important role in supporting curriculum that accurately reflects the science of evolution and natural selection, the antiquity and history of the earth and universe, and the causes and consequences of global warming.
Controversies such as the inclusion of evolution in the school curriculum rarely arise overnight, and the people who shape community policies often view, with understandable suspicion, the scientists and others swooping in to protest the results of policies that may have been developed over months or years. It is much more effective to be a part of the process from the beginning. Becoming an active member of a local school board allows the geoscience educator to establish a good reputation and presents opportunities to participate in the development of community policy instead of reacting to the announcement of policies that may be counter to good science. When controversial issues arise, the foundation of trust necessary to communicate effectively will be well established and you can participate in developing solutions as a trusted insider.
Mike's School Board Journey
In January 2003, an article in the local paper indicated that only two candidates had filed for the three open seats on my local school board. My partner and I had two preschool-aged children; so, we discussed the opportunity and I decided to run as a write-in candidate. I contacted the county clerk and learned that to have write-in votes cast for me counted, I would need to file some paperwork, which I promptly completed and submitted. I then met with the school board president, and, after discussing interests and priorities, he offered to support my candidacy and tell others in the community that I would be a good choice (there was another write-in candidate). His support was crucial because I was relatively new to and unknown in our small, rural community. I won! I attended my first board meeting within less than a month, and I was off and running.
The first few years, I learned a great deal, including how the budget was developed (mostly based on the past years' budgets) and the bills paid, how board policy is set (mostly by directives from the state) and shared with faculty (handbook) and students and parents (another handbook), the important roles played by the superintendent, and what happens in closed/executive session (mostly staff and student discipline). After two years, the board president decided not to seek reelection and the new board selected me to be the president. My new role had me spending more time at the school, working with the superintendent to manage operations and the budget, set each month's board agenda, and make decisions on things like school closures. Over the next few years, I led the board as we selected three new superintendents, kept a balanced budget, negotiated contracts with the faculty union, and upgraded the school's facilities. The board membership changed, but was always a dynamic, interesting group of people with a wide variety of experiences and interests. After four terms (16 years), my children had moved on to college, and I decided to let others take the reins.
I learned a lot, helped a lot, and found the experience to be very enriching. While serving on the board, I received mostly supportive feedback from faculty, the superintendent, and parents and students. They appreciated having someone who was a parent, educator, and scientist on the board because they felt it provided a strong educational foundation for the children. I hope that some of the readers of this article will take inspiration and seek to serve a term (or two...) on their local school board.
Illinois Association of School Boards, 2017, Foundational Principles of Effective Governance, https://www.iasb.com/conference-training-and-events/training/training-resources/foundational-principles-of-effective-governance/, retrieved Jan 24, 2021.
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