With hundreds of school board seats around the state up for election this November, the Arizona School Boards Association and many county superintendents of schools are working to inform potential school board members through webinars, workshops, and one-on-one conversations about the requirements of running and what it takes to serve effectively.
Adding weight to their work is a report released last month by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that shows how deeply that service matters, especially when it comes to student success.
Among the four main conclusions drawn by the authors of “Does School Board Leadership Matter?” is that “districts that are more successful academically have board members who assign high priority to improving student learning.” Findings resulted from matching demographic and student achievement data to a national survey sample of 900 school board members from 417 U.S. school districts.
“School board members and their attitudes do matter — and therefore it’s important to take seriously who gets elected and how that is done,” noted report authors Arnold F. Shober and Michael T. Hartney.
School board candidates often run because they are concerned about kids’ education, upset about something at the school or want to add more choices for students like orchestra or dance, said Tom Powers, Greenlee County superintendent of schools.
Arizona county school superintendents oversee school board elections and also are legally responsible for appointing board members when vacancies occur.
“If you serve for the right reasons and in the right way by making good informed decisions, you can affect kids’ lives forever,” Powers said.
What school boards do
The school board makes decisions on a wide variety of issues by working collaboratively over time, setting the district’s direction, establishing goals and structure, ensuring accountability and advocating for students, said Karen Loftus, Arizona School Boards Association director of leadership development, in a recent webinar.
The board’s decisions affect how children are educated, determine how tax dollars are spent, and impacts the entire community’s economic well-being and quality of life, Loftus added.
Loftus noted that the most effective board members work with all community stakeholders, focus on student achievement, read the agenda and related board materials, do their research before board meetings, attend every board meeting, stay current on local, state and federal education issues, share their thoughts at the board table before decisions are made, and participate in governance and leadership training.
During the webinar, Chris Thomas, ASBA’s director of legal and policy services, noted that the board’s role is significantly different than that of a school district superintendent. The school board governs, sets direction, chooses the superintendent, monitors progress toward goals and is accountable to the community, while the superintendent manages day-to-day operations, implements policies and goals set by the board, and is accountable to the board, said Thomas.
The Arizona School Boards Association also provides online resources for those interested in learning more about board service and the basics of running for election.
To run for the school board, a candidate must have been a resident of the district for at least one year before the election date, a registered voter, and the candidate and their spouse cannot be employed by the district. School board members are elected to four-year terms, receive no pay, and elections are non-partisan.
While the Arizona Legislature sets rules for school districts and how they operate, “the federal government has an increasing role in education, certainly over the past 40 years, but even more so over the last 10 or 15 years,” Thomas said.
“The federal government will give us money for certain things, then the regulations come along with it,” Thomas said.
The board takes those regulations and makes policy, Thomas said.
Attracting school board candidates
“School board leadership is important, because in my opinion, schools are our most important assets,” said Donna McGaughey, Graham County superintendent of schools. “Good school board leadership is vital for student success, but they are also accountable to the tax payers.”
While local school boards as a means to govern public schools has, according to the Fordham report, “wide appeal” and “still seems preferable to a one-size-fits-all behemoth of centralization,” McGaughey and other county superintendents report challenges attracting school board candidates in some communities.
“Often, we do not have enough candidates to fill the ballot or make a contested race,” Powers said. “When you have a contested race, it is usually because of controversy. If everyone is happy with the status quo, often no one steps forward.”
There might be one candidate for an open seat in some districts, while others may have four or five candidates for two or three seats, McGaughey said.
In Graham County, notices of a board vacancy are placed in the local newspaper and in the monthly newsletter which reaches all school staff, county employees and members of business and service groups, McGaughey said.
“In small communities like ours, most people are well acquainted with their board members,” McGaughey said. “They have opportunities to talk to them about the challenges and rewards of being on a board.”
Another way, Graham County has reached potential board members is through the Gila Valley Leadership Class, sponsored by the local chamber of commerce, McGaughey said.
“The class and the alumni presenters encourage the participants to become more involved in their communities,” McGaughey said. “The participants often start with interest in school board service, and I have found this to be an effective catalyst for getting candidates.”
Powers concurred. “In the rural areas, a school board is often one of the few opportunities that a person has to serve the community,” he said.
Powers suggests that individuals interested in pursuing a seat on a school board should attend as many board meetings as possible to really understand what a board can and cannot control, and also review the statutes and state school board regulations to understand the various responsibilities.
“I believe most candidates do realize the awesome responsibilities related to their service,” McGaughey said.
What to do to run
Candidates should pick up an information packet from the county superintendent of schools as soon as possible, file the $500 exemption or campaign committee organization statement, collect and file signatures and forms with the county superintendent of schools, then run their campaign, ASBA’s Thomas said.
“School boards are really important to our whole democratic society,” Thomas said. “It’s a rewarding experience. It is a lot of responsibility, no question, but it really is a wonderful experience and a way to volunteer your time.”