As one delves into the depths of the education system, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and insignificant. This behemoth of a system is dotted with corruption, nepotism, monopolies, and some very powerful people. It can seem like the average person has little recourse to fight and it all seems deliberately murky and confusing. I think it’s a curse of the modern age to be acutely aware of the problems that surround us but to feel impotent to exact any change.

Many people (including teachers) don’t appreciate the power a school board wields. Born from the town hall meetings of old, school board meetings are the single best way to see what is happening in your local schools. By watching how the board operates together, you can gain a sense of the overall mood inside the schools. You can be the first to hear proposals and get the chance to voice your opinion before a decision is cast. It’s important to pay attention to the rules of engagement. Some boards won’t allow members of the public to speak freely unless they are on the agenda, meaning you’ll have to tell them your intent to speak up to a week before. Learn how your local board operates so you can effectively participate in the process.

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

Did you know that school board members create the largest body of elected officials in the entire country? They are your voice in this massive education system and offer the most direct line to your local district. Structure varies state to state. Usually members are placed during local elections, work without compensation, and serve limited terms. They are typically well known in the local community and must not be financially connected to the school district in any way. For example, the bumbling manager of Dunder Mifflin cannot hold a seat because his company is the supplier of the districts’ paper goods. Each board member casts one vote and decisions are made by majority ruling.

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School boards serve a very important purpose in local education. They are responsible for the hiring of the district superintendent as well as approving all teachers and support staff. They evaluate and adopt new policies, watch over district finances, and maintain the vision and structure required in running such a large operation. In fact, if we were to compare the school system to a major corporation the superintendent would be the CEO. The principals would be the equivalent of managers, the teachers and support staff their employees. The school board would be the board of directors. As in the business world, all things must go through them and meet their approval.

School boards establish a wide variety of policies and standards describing what the schools are expected to accomplish in such areas as curriculum, transportation, building maintenance, staff development, student services, labor relations, human rights and community relations. Many of these policies and standards are routine and the board can reasonably rely on the judgment of the superintendent and staff. Some are not so routine, however, and produce disagreements in the community or even among the staff. School board members are not experts in all these areas of policy; they must rely on the superintendent to help them. However, the board member must learn enough in all of these subjects to ask questions, evaluate the answers and vote with conviction.”

With all these responsibilities, it stands to reason that the local community should be intimately involved in the school board process. Democracy only works when citizens participate (note that I didn’t say agree, I said participate). Are you passionate about teacher evaluations? Do you feel strongly about standardized testing? Are you curious how the school district operates financially? Start attending these board meetings and lift the fog. I think it’s the single best way to get real reform started.

Next up: How can you recognize a good school board?