Why You Can’t Overlook Your Local School Board
Date Posted: 4/26/2023 | Author: Kate Johanns
Voters across Texas will have the opportunity to vote in school board races and on school district bond elections during the May 6 local election. Early voting runs through May 2. Visit votetexas.gov to find your polling place and vote411.org to find out what’s on your ballot.
“It’s the most important election of our lifetime.”
Voters are treated to this hyperbole every four years during a presidential election. And while no one will deny the impact of a U.S. presidential election—the outcome moves the markets, and the winner holds the nuclear launch codes—there is a strong argument to be made that elections for local public school boards are the most impactful in an educator’s lifetime.
In Texas, these elections occur with either the November general election or with other local elections on the first Saturday in May—the latter a recipe for particularly low turnout as no statewide or national races are on the ballot. (Compare the voter turnout of approximately 45% in the November 2022 general election, which included the races for Texas governor and lieutenant governor, with the paltry 7.6% turnout in the May 2022 local and constitutional amendment election.)
For educators, having a voice in who serves on the school board and subsequently developing a good working relationship with them is unquestionably a practical matter. Your local school board determines how much you are paid, what health insurance covers you and your family, and the academic calendar. And, since 2015, when the Legislature amended the Texas Education Code (TEC) to create Districts of Innovation (DOIs), your local school board has had the ability to exempt your district from adhering to following certain sections of the TEC. In some cases, these exemptions are popular with the entire community (e.g., earlier school start dates); in others, they are controversial, such as making changes to the availability and format of planning time for classroom teachers. Approximately 85% of districts are now DOIs, and this changes the playing field for educator advocacy. Changes made to the TEC used to be solely made at the State Capitol and apply uniformly to all Texas public school employees. Now, your rights depend on your district’s DOI plan.
For American society at large, having a voice in who serves on the school board equates to having a voice in our country’s future direction. The problem with low-turnout elections is that the only voices being heard are those of a small group of voters who may have extreme views or an axe to grind. Savvy politicians and special interest groups recognize this power of a vocal few to steer the course of an elected body while others stay home and stay silent on election day. That is why in recent years, the political class has taken unprecedented interest in school boards. Evidence can be seen in a March 2023 report issued by U.S. House Republicans that accuses the Justice Department of authorizing FBI investigations into parents, some affiliated with activist groups, for criticizing school board officials. These allegations stem from the infamous letter written by the National School Boards Association (NSBA) to President Joe Biden describing “threats of violence and acts of intimidation” targeted at trustees—a letter for which the NSBA later apologized and a letter that resulted in many state-level school board associations, including the Texas Association for School Boards (TASB), ending their NSBA memberships.
TASB itself has also been the subject of controversy. In November 2021, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to TASB asserting the association had an obligation to “ensure that no child in Texas is exposed to pornography or other inappropriate content while inside a Texas public school.” In his reply to the governor, TASB Executive Director Dan Troxell reiterated that TASB was a “private, nonprofit membership organization” with “no regulatory authority over school districts.” This clarification has not stopped the filing of several bills targeting TASB during the 88th Legislature.
“Public schools are under attack, and teachers need to be aware of that,” says Kim Kriegel, a longtime ATPE leader, retired Waxahachie ISD teacher, and a trustee on the Waxahachie ISD school board for the past eight years. “There’s a lot more pressure not to believe in public education.”
The confluence of an increasingly polarized political landscape, a pandemic that resulted in controversial school board decisions on school closures and mask mandates, and societal conversations about racism, including heated debates about the way we teach our history, have all heightened interest in school board races.
Before becoming ATPE executive director, Dr. Shannon Holmes served as superintendent of Hardin-Jefferson ISD in Southeast Texas. The political parties’ interest in school boards began before the pandemic, he says, but the pandemic exacerbated the situation.
“It got fed some steroids when the pandemic came along and the governor and other statewide people wanted to make decisions, but they didn’t want that to blow back on them politically,” Holmes says. “So they pushed that down to the local levels. What do you do with masks? Are you going to close the building? Are you going to continue to have people in the building or not? They just pushed that down to the local level where they would have to wear some of those decisions.”
Adding complexity to the situation: Austin ISD reported in August 2021 that its social media metrics revealed a significant portion of online debate about its mask mandate was generated by Kazakhstan-based Twitter and Facebook profiles, lending credence to theories about foreign entities using social media to sow division in American politics.
How do you define nonpartisan?
In Texas, school board races are nonpartisan—supposedly. But both the Texas Democratic and Texas Republican parties have specific initiatives to support likeminded candidates in these races. In 2015, Texas Democrats started Project LIFT, which provides support for candidates who “have a history of supporting and voting for Democrats.” FAQs for Spring 2023 Project LIFT assistance stated the party was “invested in getting folks elected to these positions who will govern in a way that promotes Democratic Party values today and will be our rising stars of tomorrow.”
Similarly, in December 2021, the Texas GOP announced the creation of a “Local Government Committee” to play a greater role in nonpartisan races and ballot propositions. According to the press release: “The Texas GOP has celebrated major successes in recent nonpartisan races. With the assistance of state and county GOP leaders, last month, Carroll ISD in Southlake, Texas, became one of the first places in the country where candidates running to oppose Critical Race Theory took a school board majority. Similarly, GOP-supported challengers unseated three long-time incumbents in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, in Harris County, the state’s third-largest school district, after a controversy over Critical Race Theory.” The statement included a quote from Republican Party of Texas Chairman Matt Rinaldi: “Following a year of big wins in school board and mayoral elections that drew national attention, the Republican Party of Texas is announcing an even greater focus on influencing local elections. It is no coincidence that this initiative comes at the same time President Biden’s Department of Justice is attempting to suppress parental involvement in local elections by threatening to treat parents as terrorists for becoming involved in their children’s education. Democrats across the country see the importance of local elections in the fight for America, and so does the Texas GOP.” Texas Monthly reported in March 2023 that a Dripping Springs ISD school board race had drawn contributions from Republican donors residing outside Texas.
All of this political intrigue makes for good sound bytes on cable news, clickbait social media posts, and even a hilarious Saturday Night Live skit that rings a little too true.
And I should get involved because?
If it all sounds like a hot mess, that’s because it is. So why should educators—who already have too much on their plates between large class sizes, testing, Reading Academies, HB 4545 tutoring, etc.—add the local school board to their to-do lists?
Honestly, you can’t afford not to. Too much is on the line.
Ballinger ISD Trustee Cheryl Buchanan just started her third term on the school board in the district where she previously taught for 24 years. Buchanan, a past state president, understands why educators don’t attend school board meetings—but she also says that getting involved and paying attention is the only way to truly understand what’s going on in your district.
“We don’t have many, if any, [school] staff members come at all,” Buchanan says. “It’s a matter of time. ‘I’ve been at school all day. I don’t want to go and sit. I don’t want to listen to this.’”
But Buchanan points to a very recent example of a school board decision where faculty involvement could have saved a lot of frustration. Ballinger ISD had an excess of funds from the free and reduced lunch program that had to be spent on something related to its nutrition services. The school board decided to create a coffee/snack bar/study area on the high school campus. Some teachers complained.
“I’ve had teachers come to me and say, ‘Why are you wasting money on putting this in our high school? Who’s going to watch the kids? Why didn’t you spend that money on something else?’” Buchanan says. “If they had been paying attention to the school board meeting, that would have all been explained, and they could have had input on that. Because it was discussed thoroughly at the school board meeting—the process and how we had too much money and what happened. And that doesn’t always get carried to the faculty. But if they had listened to the school board meetings, then they would have known exactly why it had happened.”
When she taught, Buchanan did attend the school board meetings, and she is proud to carry forward a teacher’s mindset into her work as a trustee today. “I do have a teacher’s opinion, and I do keep the teachers in mind,” she says. “I say, ‘No, they’re not going to like that, the morale is low right now, and you’re going to add this on?’ or I say, ‘Yes, that is a good idea; let’s go ahead because they’ve got to know that we’re really thinking of them.’ That’s how I feel I am trying to serve the teachers in my school.’”
Kriegel feels a similar calling.
“As an educator, of course, I was on the front lines teaching,” she says. “I bring a teacher’s perspective to the school board that others don’t bring. I understand what it means when you make decisions like increasing class sizes. When that’s discussed, I bring my teacher’s perspective to the school board as I feel like my constituents expect me to.”
Being involved with the school board is about relationship building during the good times. That way, the bonds are there when there is a problem. As a teacher and Waxahachie ATPE leader, Kriegel worked to build those ties—which her successors in the local unit continue to do. “It was ATPE’s role to provide treats and to be the sunshine part with the knowledge that if a teacher has a grievance, that’s part of it, too, because ATPE does provide that representation.”
Kriegel and her fellow trustees across Texas see the district from a 30,000-foot level. “If we have an issue, we go to the superintendent, and if teachers have an issue, they go through the proper chain to get to us with issues.”
Some educators, when contacting the ATPE state office for assistance, have expressed hesitation to speak during public comment at a school board meeting or even attend for fear of causing workplace troubles.
Holmes says that he understands this concern—but that while he is sure there is an example of this happening somewhere, he has personally not seen it in his 24 years of working with school boards. And he also says that sometimes, leaders must take risks.
“There has to be some individual courage and some risk-taking involved in being a leader as a professional educator,” he says.
Plus, it’s always better to address a concern early on with those who have the power to change course than to wait until a problem explodes and you may be forced to face the same group in an adversarial setting, such as a grievance.
“My advice to educators is don’t show up with just a problem,” Holmes says. “Talk with your colleagues, talk with your administration, and come with solutions.”
While it’s important for educators to have a presence at some school board meetings, Holmes says that the educator-trustee relationship is a two-way street.
“School board members need to be on campuses, too,” Holmes says. “The best time to make an impact with a school board member is when they’re on campus and you can show them what’s going on in your classroom and how their decisions have impacted you. And those one-on-one conversations at the coffee shop or the grocery store are just as impactful as your showing up at a school board meeting in a suit to address an issue.”
Despite the current challenges present in a system of locally elected school boards, Holmes believes in the system of local control that has long been espoused by Texans and by ATPE since its founding.
“I think that by and large, most decisions are better made at the local level because there we have an elected school board that has been elected by the community to govern what’s going on in that community. And that community may have different needs, wants, and desires than their neighboring community. To take that away and manage everything from Austin just wouldn’t work.”
What happens, though, is a matter of who gets elected to the school board. And that’s where we all come in, with our votes.
5 Ways to Get Involved with Your Local School Board
- First and foremost, vote. Raise the voter turnout.
- Attend candidate forums such as that recently held by Humble ATPE so you can get to know the candidates and their stances on critical issues.
- Follow the school board. Even if you aren’t able to attend a meeting, watch it on YouTube.
- Interact with school board members when they visit your campus.
- Speak during public comment, and not just when there’s a problem. You can also speak during public comment to share good news or thank trustees. That way, when there’s a problem, it won’t be the first time you’re seen at the mic.
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