The AJC has a special section this weekend on school boards, political bodies that garner scant attention considering the consequences of their actions. While the Nov. 2 school board races in metro Atlanta lack the drama of the governor’s race, school boards oversee annual budgets that can top a billion dollars and set policies that can determine the quality of your child’s education.
Yet, few people show up for school board candidate forums or read the mailers from candidates. I have attended forums with as few as 15 voters in the audience. But I believe readers of this blog — whose presence here means they care about education — are aware of the importance of the upcoming school board races, especially in counties in transition like DeKalb and Cobb.
In evaluating school board candidates, here are some considerations that I think are important for voters:
— What’s been their historic involvement with the schools? Can they name the schools in their districts and the principals? As surprising as it may seem, some candidates can’t list the schools in the areas they want to represent.
— Have they attended school board meetings on a regular basis? Potential board members don’t have to show up at every meeting, but they have to attend enough to understand what the board does.
— What are their plans to improve student achievement? At some forums, candidates never address student achievement except to complain that it’s not high enough. But they offer no ideas about how to raise it.
— Be wary of candidates running because of a private gripe with the district over how their child was treated. Such candidates may be great advocates for their own kids, but lack a broader interest in the success of all students.
— Can the candidates work as part of a team? Everyone loves a rebel, but at some point board members have to work together to pass policy, hire superintendents and create goals for students. A board overrun with mavericks provides great drama but few results. And somebody usually ends up in court.
— Can the candidates put forth any proposals to improve student learning that don’t require piles of cash? Because there won’t be piles. Anywhere. For a long time.
— Listen carefully when candidates talk about their goals. Are they compliance-driven — do they talk about meeting the mandates set by the state Department of Education? Or are they performance-driven — do they focus on how to get students achieving not only to the state bar, but to national and international levels? You don’t want schools that just comply; you want schools that perform.
— What is their broader vision for the schools? And how will they hold the superintendent accountable for acting on the vision? Candidates ought to spell out specific sets of measures they’d use to assess whether superintendents are doing a good job.
— What do they know about the range of programs offered to students? For instance, are they aware of the state’s Virtual High School? If so, can they tell you how many high schoolers in the district are taking Advanced Placement courses online? Can they report how many kids are taking AP classes, period? Do they know why it’s important for students to not only take AP classes, but to take and score high on AP tests?
— Do they have other sources of income or are they regarding the school board stipend as their livelihood? As a rule, people with dire money problems — houses in foreclosure, no clear source of income, collection agencies at their heels — don’t make effective board members. They ought to straighten out their own finances before they manage a district’s finances. (One tip: If a candidate’s phone has been disconnected, he or she is not a good bet.)
— Is the candidate a current or retired school employee? In concept, boards are supposed to give parents a hand in their local schools, but they’ve come to be dominated by educators. That skews the focus of boards from student concerns to teacher concerns. Look for candidates without financial ties to the school system, either their own or family members.
–Watch for the perennial candidates who envision a career in politics and are looking for any foothold. School boards require people willing to slog through reports, scrutinize budgets and read the fine print. Don’t waste a vote on someone who sees the board as way to get their name in the paper on their way to the Legislature.
— On the other hand, beware of lifers. After two decades or more, a member ought to step down and make room for new voices and ideas.