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How to Get Voters to Care About School Board Elections

School board races are even more crucial during the pandemic

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School board races typically get short shrift in election coverage. On ballots, they’re often relegated to the last pages, along with district court judges and densely worded ballot measures.

But school board members play a key leadership and oversight role in local public schools. During the pandemic, that includes an important new responsibility: largely deciding whether (and when) shuttered campuses will reopen, as well as setting the parameters for remote or hybrid learning.

On Nov. 3, thousands of school board seats will be up for grabs from Maine to California and just about every state in between. Ballotpedia is tracking those elections in the 200 largest school districts (by enrollment), as well as districts that overlap with the 100 largest cities.

The Coronavirus Effect on Candidates

Pandemic response is at the heart of many school board campaigns in 2020, including in Shelby County, Tennessee, where candidates are debating how to best deliver remote learning to students.

“That’s a heavy, heavy lift,” Memphis school board member Kevin Woods, who is seeking re-election, told The Daily Memphian. “It’s not a question of ‘if’ on virtual education. It’s ‘how good is it going to be.’” In Prince George’s County, Maryland, several school board candidates say they want to see students brought back to campus at least part-time, as soon as it’s safe for them and their teachers.

And in Virginia Beach, Virginia, the pandemic has upended the usual school board campaign rhetoric, reported Peter Coutu of The Virginian-Pilot, with typical pledges to boost teacher pay or renovate older buildings giving way to debates over how soon campuses might be able to reopen.

A Lack of Competition

Also in Virginia, the Roanoke Times’ editorial board weighed in on a very different question: Why do many of the region’s school board candidates run unopposed?

“Most of the school board members making these decisions haven’t had to face voter scrutiny the way candidates for other offices have — and know that they’re unlikely to face such scrutiny in the future. If you’re fine with that, then you should be fine with whatever your school board decides on how to reopen schools. If you’re not, then you can change that at the next election,” the editorial board argued.

Low interest in school board races is hardly a problem limited to Virginia. Nationally, it’s not unusual for just 5 to 10 percent of eligible voters to determine who takes the reins of local public schools.

The Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, found that the timing of school board races is a factor in not only how many people vote but whether they “punish” incumbent members if a district has recently posted poor academic performance on high-stakes tests.

Tips for Writing About School Board Races

When covering school board races, here are three key elements for reporter to keep in mind:

Tell your audience why school boards matter. Not everyone knows how much power and authority school boards have over decisions like operating budgets, curriculum, and many of the policy directives that shape students’ daily learning.

Show them the money. Let your audience know who’s paying for school board members’ campaigns (see more with our Reporter Guide). Check their finance statements, which must be filed with the appropriate state agency. Is there a big bond measure underway? Look at special interest groups and unions. Also, if there’s a bond measure happening, keep an eye out for construction firms and others who might benefit from big-ticket contracts to renovate schools.

Examine the racial and ethnic diversity of school board members, candidates, and voters. As reporter Matt Barnum explained in this piece for Chalkbeat, a recent study found that “school board voters are much whiter and more affluent” than the students in those local districts. In addition, school board members themselves are most often white, including in districts with nonwhite student majorities. This is about more than just optics: A 2017 study by Florida State University researchers found that districts with more diverse school boards had lower rates of student suspensions overall, and that Black and brown students were also less likely to be suspended at higher rates than their white classmates.

Why are they running? In many communities, school board members receive only a small stipend for what can be a significant time commitment. What’s motivating candidates to put their name on the ballot? Consider sending a questionnaire to all candidates and sharing their answers.

In Indianapolis, four of seven board seats are on the ballot this year. Ten candidates have filed for office, and all have listed closing the city’s opportunity and achievement gaps for Black and brown students as among their top priorities, reported Chalkbeat’s Stephanie Wang.

School choice is also a top issue in the Nashville school board race, reported The Tennessean’s Meghan Mangrum, along with how best to handle remote learning and school closures.

In Austin, Texas, challengers in the school board race include a 25-year-old senior at Huston-Tillotson University, a historically Black postsecondary campus. As education reporter Melissa Taboada noted in the Austin Statesman, Jared Breckenridge has become a familiar face at school board meetings over the past few years, and fought against the district’s decision last year to close some campuses as a result of enrollment downturns and financial issues.

Breckenridge also believes “the district should be working to provide free coronavirus testing to students and staff returning to campuses and that extracurricular activities should be placed on hold until there is a scientifically proven vaccine and data show it’s safe to return to those activities.”

In Florida, while school board races are technically nonpartisan, the state Democratic Party has spent heavily on candidates who share their priorities, reported John Kennedy of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. That includes in Broward County, where Democrats’ “get-out-the-vote” efforts focused heavily on mail ballots that helped unseat a six-year incumbent in the primary.

In San Diego, voters will weigh in on two ballot measures that have the potential to reshape the makeup of future school boards and how those members are held accountable for their actions. Measure C, intended to diversify the school board’s representation, would allow voters to choose from among school board candidates seeking to represent a specific geographic area, rather than voting for districtwide candidates. The change would bring the San Diego Unified School District in line with the California Voting Rights Act passed in 2002.

The existing districtwide method has meant that candidates favored by a large number of non-white voters in a particular geographic region have lost out to white candidates in the districtwide race, noted the San Diego Union-Tribune’s editorial board. “District-only elections are also preferable as a matter of policy. They don’t just remove obstacles for candidates of color in a school district that has had only three Latino and one Asian-American trustees in its history. They are, simply put, fairer,” the editorial board concluded.