Issue #11: School Board Elections

What's at stake and what you can do about it

Dear Kristin,

Election season is on its way and school board member elections are on the ballot. What are teachers looking for in their board members? Where can I find info on the prospective board members who are running? What sources should I look to for advice?

—Soon-To-Be-Voter

Dear Soon-To-Be-Voter,

A common theme to my previous newsletters has been that it’s bad now, and it will continue to be bad, and man, I hope we find a way to make it less bad. There’s one group that can do something about it: The school board.

Aside from refereeing brawls between community members, school boards are also responsible for developing the budget, hiring and evaluating the superintendent, and setting district policies.

Division. School board member positions are supposed to be nonpartisan. Unfortunately, they have become increasingly partisan. Candidates seem to feel an allegiance to stick to the platforms and talking points of their national political party. I saw this take place in my school district this week.

My school board debated for hours over the purchase of a $45,000 social-emotional curriculum for high school students that focused on character development. We have three high schools and two alternative schools in my district. They were in session until midnight, debating. The board eventually voted to allow the purchase.

I believe it only passed because of how our board is comprised - the “Republican” members do not outnumber the “Democrat” members. Social-emotional learning (SEL) has become a left-leaning cause. I worry that after this election, the conservative members will hold the majority vote and any proposals they see that are focused on mental health, SEL, or anything sounding adjacent to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) will get voted down.

Unfortunately, candidates in my district have retreated to their corners, backing their causes. One side cares primarily about academics/achievement, and the other is focusing on kids’ social-emotional well-being. I imagine many districts look and sound the way mine does. It’s not surprising that local politics mirror the large divide we are seeing on a national level. It would be odd if, on a local level, things got leveled out and became moderate.

What to look for. Look for candidates who understand the gravity of the mental health issues that many kids are facing today. Dr. Emily Aron wrote for MedStar Health:

In October 2021, The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in children’s mental health. The declaration notes that from March to October 2020, emergency department visits for mental health reasons rose 24% among kids aged 5-11, and 31% for teens aged 12-17. Startlingly, suspected suicide attempts increased by nearly 51% among teen girls in early 2021 compared to two years before. More than 140,000 children experienced the death of a caregiver during the pandemic. Children from historically minoritized groups have been born with a disproportionate share of this burden.

Some candidates seem to forget we just went through a pandemic. People are still getting diagnosed with COVID. Over 1,000,000 Americans died. This generation of children will be suffering from the lived experience of enduring a majorly stressful, unprecedented crisis for years to come. They need help. Sometimes, school is the only place where help is available. Teachers are often told to meet kids where they are so they can educate them. Where they are is not a fully functioning baseline.

Ask any teacher right now, What’s something that is holding your students back from achieving more academically? They will tell you, kids cannot regulate their emotions. They are coming to school with complex mental health needs. One cannot learn and cannot focus if they aren’t balanced. Any candidate who is focused solely on academics and not mental health is not serious about educating kids. You have to fix the foundation first.

Look for candidates who will serve all members of a school district. That’s what a political office is. It’s an office created to serve its constituents — students, staff, and community members. Look for a leader who hears everyone out and whose platform is about serving and including everyone. Public school, the reason I love it so much, is about every student. It’s not built to be selective, to focus on certain populations who have shown the most promise.

Look for candidates who understand what is truly happening in school buildings. Some candidates run and they come armed with ideas of what they think is happening in schools. Ever have someone warn you of a rash of students identifying as cats? And that there are now litter boxes in the restrooms to collect their waste? Some candidates run on misinformation. They don’t bother to fact-check. They don’t bother to ask anyone inside one of the schools they want to represent, Is this what’s really happening in your building?

Most candidates do not have backgrounds in education. Many will claim they know how to fix your district’s problems, usually based on professional experience outside of education. The best candidates will rely on their professional experience as well as the information they gather from talking to teachers/staff members.

The problems facing districts can be nuanced. Putting on your business hat to make black-and-white business decisions does not work in education. School board members must listen to and collaborate with the experts within the district to develop solutions. Be wary of know-it-all candidates who want to do more talking than listening.

Where to find info. There are forums. Every district has them (hopefully). It’s the perfect opportunity to get out and hear the candidates in person and ask your questions. There should be recaps of what was said in the forums online.

Each candidate has a social media presence. That presence will tell you a lot about what they care about, as well as how they react to people who agree and disagree with them. In my district, one candidate has been caught deleting comments that challenge his platform and beliefs. That tells me exactly how he’s going to react, should he win the election, when faced with opposing ideas.

You can find special interest groups on Facebook, usually by political party. Start by looking up your school district’s name and see what’s offered. Sometimes you can search by your county name, too. You will find like-minded people in this group who will highlight candidates serving your group’s interests. Warning: You must also understand these groups are an echo chamber; they will also continue to divide voters along party lines. Not a lot of reaching-across-the-aisle vibes in those spaces.

You can also find surveys that candidates fill out. Your local paper probably has one or two of them. They will be posted on social media as well. Local committees and groups will ask candidates questions about their platform to gauge if they want to support a candidate.

Beware of candidates who do not take the time to fill out the questionnaires. If they don’t devote the time now, while running, they won’t devote the proper amount of time, once elected. And it is a huge time commitment. It’s more than just showing up to once-a-month meetings and voting.

Finally, if the school board candidate has kids, find out where they go to school. Last year, my district had a man run who homeschooled his kids. We also had a member get elected to our public school board. After the election, she pulled one of her kids out of our district, placing her child in a neighboring private school. You want someone who believes in your district enough to place their kids in the system.

When all else fails and you are out of time to do the proper research, ask around. You know whose opinions you trust. There are people in your community who have been following along, doing the information gathering.

What to watch out for. I know you didn’t ask, but as much as you need to dig to see what a candidate stands for, you need to be aware of factors that are threatening schools, aside from mental health.

Beware of churches endorsing candidates (unless you are a person who believes religious influence is important in our public schools).

A local mega-church has endorsed candidates in my district in the past and is doing it again, this election season. You might say wait, how can that happen? Aren’t churches supposed to stay out of politics? They sure are. But they don’t. Some don’t care about separation of church and state. They think the only candidate worth electing is one who worships the same god they do, from the same worship hall, sitting next to them, in the same pew.

@melanieinkc

🚩🚩 Why does this church want to dominate the public school BOE? I have an idea. @Jess Piper #leessummit #lsr7 #schoolchoiceisascam #greenscreen

Their head pastor endorses here, not by name, maybe to avoid getting in trouble with the IRS, candidates he has decided are godly. He knows two of them. Because they attend his church. He knows a few godly people on the school board, too. Again, because they attend his church. (In my community, it’s common to see election signs of these church-endorsed candidates in the same yard, right next to a sign for this mega-church.)

The religious right wants to take over my public school district. I know my district is not the only one out there struggling with this.

Also, watch out for voucher talk. The school board member member who pulled one of her children out of my district and placed them in private school? When she ran, her platform was pro-school choice vouchers. A woman running for a school board seat in our public school district told community members if it was up to her, she’d give students in our district vouchers, so they could enroll in the private school of their choosing. One reason vouchers are used is that they are supposed to help kids get out of failing school districts. I don’t live in a failing school district.

I think this is why she won, actually. I think the private school parents in my district thought, Let’s get this gal in and then we can have the state pay for our private school tuition! She ran on this platform along with another woman.

If these two women who ran on the same platform had done any research, they would know, that the school board doesn’t decide who is and isn’t accepting vouchers. It’s decided at a state level.

Or maybe they did know and they figured the general public wouldn’t research it. They would just see dollar signs and vote for them. It worked. Both got voted in.

Anyhow, school choice vouchers are problematic for many reasons. Research shows that vouchers don’t have a positive impact on test scores. In 2018, Arizona passed a universal school voucher program, available for every student in the state. Since it’s universal, that means vouchers go to families of means, in good school districts. Researchers found $700k in voucher funds being spent on personal items like make-up and clothing. There’s also the issue of funding. Public schools deserve to keep public funding. They need to keep it (would be swell if they were ever fully funded). Tax payers don’t need to be writing checks for kids to attend private schools.

Book banning is another expensive issue that districts are currently facing. Some board members run on a platform promising to deliver more censorship of school library materials. My district will be out around $40,000 to sort through their list of books that were submitted for review last year. Forming a committee and providing members with copies of the books is costly. It requires tax payers to pay for committee members to read these books, meet, and come to a consensus over the flagged book.

I hope that you don’t write my advice off as liberal propaganda. My view on the needs of public schools comes from 12 years of working in them. Most of my friends and family are educators. Actually, I voted Republican until I became a teacher. My job has influenced my political views, more than anything.

Finally, I am incredibly appreciative of those willing to do this work. Even those who push back against the purchase of a curriculum that will help many teachers and students, all because her political party has decided the acronym of the day is bad. Still, that BOE member did show up and she represented the ideas/concerns of a group of people. Which is what this process is, right? I value the democratic process when it is properly executed. It’s what makes this country great.

SO, GO VOTE!!!! (And tell your friends to vote, too!)

—Kristin

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