What Does a School Board Do? A Brief Guide for Parents

School boards are an essential part of the public education system. Learn more about what board members are responsible for, how they work, and who can join.

Believe it or not, public schools are run more like private corporations than one may think — the power structures that govern the two share many similarities.

Just as a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) oversees a company, a superintendent supervises a school district. Contrary to what many may believe, however, neither the CEO nor the superintendent is at the top of the ladder. Instead, a company’s CEO is elected by and reports to a board of directors. Likewise, a school district’s superintendent is accountable to a school board, or a school committee.

The Responsibilities of the School Board

The school board embodies the “public” side of public education. Elected or appointed by the town(s) they represent, members of the school board advocate for the needs and desires of the district. While the role of a public school board may vary state by state, for the most part, they have similar responsibilities.

Some of the most important responsibilities the board holds include:

  • Hiring and/or firing the superintendent
  • Setting the yearly budget
  • Approving contracts for teachers and outside vendors
  • Establishing a vision for the district
  • Expanding the district or closing schools

For instance, the Massachusetts Constitution characterizes the school board as a body with the power to select and terminate the superintendent, approve district education budgets, and establish goals and policies for the district's schools.

In short, the school board determines the direction that the school district takes. New initiatives, educational goals, and large changes to the curriculum or budget all need to go through the school board. Even with all of this power, productive school boards tend to be run in close collaboration with the superintendent.

The School Board, the Superintendent, and the Teachers

The relationship among the school board, the superintendent, and the teachers is a complex one. While the superintendent represents the needs of the staff and of the students, she is also beholden to the requests of the school board, whose members represent the taxpayers.

Although the school board, the superintendent, and the teachers all want what’s best for students, they may not always agree with one another — and compromise can be difficult. Take, for example, the yearly budget. If the school wants to increase the budget by $10,000 to purchase new computers for classrooms, the school board has to approve the change. If the school board agrees, however, they could very well be agreeing on a tax increase, which may be looked upon negatively by the public.

Typically, the school board represents — and is aligned with — constituents’ own interests. So if residents would not want the tax increase cited above, for instance, then the school board would seek to rework the budget to find the necessary funds elsewhere.

One extreme (and highly unusual) example of a school board being out of sync with its constituents can be found in the New York suburb of East Ramapo. NPR’s This American Life covered the story, about a community whose school board members cut public-school funding because their own children attended private religious schools. (This fascinating story is worth a listen.) Despite the struggles in East Ramapo, rarely are things so contentious. In fact, school boards often adopt the recommendations set forth by the superintendent, as she is the one who is in direct contact with the principals, teachers, and students.

The Board Members

Anyone in the community can run for a seat on the school board, and those who do run are motivated by a variety of reasons. The most common reason to run for a seat is because the candidate has a child in the schools and wants to have an impact on that child’s education. Other reasons include aspiring to a position in town governance, seeking to improve the standing of the school district, or to taking the district in a new direction.

The Election Process

While specifics may differ by state or by district, the general process is more or less the same for most elected school boards. A candidate must be a U.S. citizen and must be registered to vote. Most states require that a candidate not already hold an elected position or be convicted of a crime. If the general requirements are met, typically a candidate must complete a nominating petition, which carries the signatures of qualified voters in the school district.

As the campaign continues, candidates may receive donations from supporters or may contribute their own funds. In some states, like New Jersey, all campaign contributions and expenditures must be reported and filed with the state before a set deadline.

If you have further questions about getting involved with your local school board, seek out your state’s school board association. Most of the answers to your questions are just a click away.

Sources:

A Not-So-Simple Majority. Retrieved May 20, 2015, from This American Life.

How to Become a School Board Member. (n.d.). Retrieved May 20, 2015, from New Jersey School Boards Association.

The 189th General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts – General Laws. Retrieved May 20, 2015, from The General Court.

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