Pulling Back the Curtain on School Boards. Knowing How They Work Has Never Been More Critical.

School board elections across the country are turning into big-money campaigns, often powered by out-of-area contributors. Take a deeper look at who's on the board, how they get there, and what they control—and don't—in their districts. 

Illustration by Victor Juhasz

The broad role of school boards—hire a superintendent, set policy and curriculum, and make the final budget decisions—hasn’t changed in decades. But who gets on boards, and how they get there, has been undergoing a radical transformation.

In many districts across the country, today’s candidates are raising large amounts of money, receiving donations from organizations and individuals outside their districts, hiring campaign managers, and creating advertisements in an attempt to stand out in their local elections. This trend started in big cities, with one of the most recent examples in Denver. Together, the nine candidates for the 2019 school board race raised nearly $1 million.

This type of spending has played out beyond cities as well. Jefferson County, just west of Denver, saw more than $1 million spent in its 2015 race for five seats. A significant amount of money came from a conservative organization founded and funded by political donors Charles and David Koch.

Increasingly, candidates are pulling in donations not only from nonresidents, but also from political action committees and high-profile figures, including Netflix founder Reed Hastings, former New York City mayor and presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, and businessman Charles Koch. (David Koch died in August.) These donors typically bring a national education agenda, focused on such things as charter schools or teacher evaluations, sometimes making those issues a larger factor in local elections than they would be otherwise.

These new alliances are rearranging the traditional lines of power, says Sarah Reckhow, one of three authors of the recent book Outside Money in School Board Elections (Harvard Education Pr, 2019). Reckhow argues that national interest in local school board races can “nationalize” education, stripping decision-making power from residents and affecting equity. Outside Money studies the influence of nonlocal donors in five school board races across the country, from Los Angeles to Bridgeport, CT.

This shape-shifting can further people’s misunderstanding of what school boards do and, maybe more importantly, don’t do—as well as when they do it and how key decisions are reached. For any librarian who has been on the end of a budget decision that eliminates hours or their job, or anyone who fears they may be next, understanding how school boards operate is more important than ever.


What are school boards?

There are more than 13,500 public school boards in the country, ranging from big-city boards that operate under mayoral control to rural boards that sometimes fail to find enough candidates willing to volunteer. While City Hall machinations usually get the bulk of attention, a school board’s budget is typically twice that of a municipal budget. All told public school boards in the United States control about $700 billion in spending annually, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

School board members can come from any demographic, background, or profession, with no required specialized knowledge about education. Serving is “one of the last vestiges of true citizen service,” says National School Boards Association executive director and CEO Thomas Gentzel. The ideal board would have a cross-section of representatives from a community, he says.

While the types of school boards and how they run can vary widely, most have just one employee—the superintendent—and the bulk of the budgets that members oversee are fixed costs, Gentzel adds. “There’s less discretionary dollars than most people realize.”

But those facts do not mean boards don’t have the final say in budget making, cutting jobs, or deciding the direction of a school district. They do. And that directly impacts librarians.

More than 10,000 librarians lost their jobs from 2009 to 2016, according to the NCES, a 19 percent decrease in the total number of positions, and boards have been a part of these cutbacks.

In 2019, the Spokane (WA) Schools’ board of directors eliminated all of the district librarian positions, allowing willing staffers with seniority to transfer into classrooms.

Chicago schools went through numerous cutbacks during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s two terms, during which he appointed the school board members. Schools closed, and the number of full-time librarians and media specialist positions dropped from 450 in 2014 to 150 in 2018.

In Oakland, CA, 30 percent of the city’s 80 school libraries are now closed, including those in 14 of 17 high schools. Faced with a recent $9 million budget gap midyear, the school board voted to lay off the district’s head librarian.

Even having a former librarian on the board can’t insulate a district from media center cuts. Jan Mees joined the Columbia (MO) school board directly after her retirement as one of the district high school’s media specialists in 2007. When bad board policy put the district in debt, Mees was faced with balancing the budget, in part, by cutting media specialists.

“We had worked so hard as a department to get every building with sufficient staff,” she says. Still, she voted for the cuts to keep the district solvent. “A lot of friendships over 21 years [working in the district] came under risk” when faced with difficult decisions, she adds. After serving 12 years, Mees left the board in 2019.


How board members are elected

Emma Petrie-Barcelona just won her third term to the Lakewood (OH) City School District Board of Education. The district has 12 schools serving its 4,854 students about 10 miles west of downtown Cleveland. Lakewood is an average-size district. The highest percentage of U.S. school districts—15 percent—have between 2,500 and 4,999 students, according to the NCES.

Both Columbia and Lakewood are districts where candidates have been compelled to raise funds and name campaign managers to help them navigate the demands of a school board race.

Petrie-Barcelona’s experience offers a window into school board elections. As a full-time senior official at a nonprofit and the mother of two middle schoolers, the stresses of running a competitive race were taxing. For the first time, she used an unpaid campaign manager to “make sure I was showing up at the right things and participating in all the events,” she says. Petrie-Barcelona did some modest fundraising, sent out a mailer to a portion of the district’s residents, and participated in several candidate forums. She was rewarded with 5,728 votes, the highest total in the race.

Mees’s campaign experience was similar. She formed a campaign committee and named a friend as her campaign chairman. With the backing of many recent colleagues and deep roots in her community, Mees raised more than $14,000 in her first race, paying for radio advertisements, mailings, and yard signs. Columbia is a media-rich environment that’s politically active. The month before the election, Mees said she appeared at 15 different candidate forums for groups ranging from teachers to environmentalists to special education advocates.


What do boards do?

Because boards meet mostly in public (some personnel discussions and negotiations occur in executive sessions), it should be easy to discern what boards do and how they do it. But for most people, including school staff, that’s not always the case.

Mees says she attended board meetings before joining, but she didn’t realize the amount of work that occurred behind the scenes. “I thought all they did was say yes,” she says. Once she was elected, her days were filled with committee meetings, reading documents related to policies, and answering emails from residents.

Essentially, school boards are tasked with four big-picture items: developing policy and curriculum, maintaining school facilities, hiring a superintendent, and negotiating with district employees. The adoption of an annual budget impacts all of these areas.

“Boards shouldn’t be involved in day-to-day operations,” Gentzel says. In fact, most have multiyear plans that give the district a long-term blueprint. For instance, if a district has low reading scores on standardized tests, a board may request more emphasis in terms of teaching time and materials concentrated on this issue. Typically, administration and school staff would create the specific plan to accomplish this goal.

Collectively, the board sets the district’s direction in a number of areas but steps back when it comes to the creation of the annual budget. Most districts put principals in charge of delineating their schools’ needs, from personnel to textbooks to supplies. This means the best strategy for librarians hoping to influence a budget decision often starts with convincing people in their own building of a certain need, from more staff to increased funds for books or other resources.

Once a school’s budget is set, the district administration folds all the requests into one document, inevitably pitting various needs against one another. Sometimes, academic requests, such as increasing staff hours or purchasing materials, can become lower priorities than unrelated budget needs such as building repairs, health care costs, or special education staffing.

All of these requests, of course, are weighed against a district’s revenue, meaning that everything from decreased local real estate values to a reduction in state or federal aid can derail key parts of any budget. The bulk of each budget, about 80 percent, is fixed personnel costs to staff classrooms and run the district. Because district fiscal years typically run from August to July, this internal budget-building lasts from the beginning of the school year until sometime after the new calendar year.

Once administrators have considered all requests, they produce a budget to present to the school board. There is typically a short period where board members ask questions and request revisions before the entire document is released to the public. Budgets are generally released in early spring with an expectation that the public will comment and the budget will be finalized by late spring.


How to best influence a board

If the time between when the public learns about budget requests and when a decision is ultimately reached seems short, it is. That’s why many officials, from educators to school board experts, emphasize that waiting until budget deliberations to advocate for funding changes is often setting yourself up for failure. For librarians, there should be an open dialogue year-round, emphasizing the importance of the library and its staff.

For official requests, Mees and Petrie-Barcelona both advise school employees to go through the chain of command at the school and district level. “You don’t want to blindside the administration” by showing up at a board meeting and making a request no one knew was coming, Mees says.

“I have expectations that administrations and leaders will work cooperatively with everyone in the district, talking about what’s working and what’s not,” says Petrie-Barcelona. “Without that due diligence, we’d be much less likely” to make a major change.

Being an effective advocate requires not just year-round effort, but being well-informed on the issue, the school board process, and individual responsibilities.

Mees was the president of Missouri’s School Board Association, a position that allowed her to meet with school board members across the country and see the different challenges every district confronts and unique problems faced by different boards. While she sometimes marveled at the complexity of running her district of 13,336 students in 34 schools, she remembers speaking with Alaska board members who sometimes needed to fly sports teams to their games.

“The complexity of a school district—that you don’t know until you get into the weeds—is mind-boggling,” she says.

Understanding the challenges board members face helps library advocates make the best, most effective case for school librarians.

Lakewood still has librarians in each building, but Petrie-Barcelona cautions that the jobs aren’t guaranteed. “When positions have needed to be cut, librarians are at risk,” she says. “We want to keep class sizes as low as possible, but my expectation is our schools will always have professionals in the [library].”

Public opinion remains important, as well. A few dozen parents in a small suburban district can raise the profile of an issue, and it doesn’t take too many urban parents to do the same if they are well organized. Success changing proposed cuts can remain elusive, however.

Consider the case of a librarian from Antioch, CA, who formalized her attempt to save 4.5 full-time librarian jobs threatened by a budget deficit. Samantha Loza not only spoke against the cuts to the board, but her petition drew 900 signatures in support. Ultimately, though, the school board forged ahead with its cuts, losing 16.5 full-time positions to close its $4 million gap.

Once cuts are proposed, it takes a “Herculean effort” to overturn the recommendation, says Keith Curry Lance, a library consultant. The process can start all over again the following year, he adds.

“When people are threatened, that’s when I hear from librarians,” he says. “To me, this is not advocacy, it’s damage control.”

Wayne D’Orio writes frequently about education and equity.

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