The School Board, Explained

Large group of business people at lecture in New York style auditorium

At a time when school board members are facing unprecedented challenges, it’s important to know what school boards do and how to get involved. (Courtesy: Getty Images)

Behind each of the nearly 14,000 public school districts in the United States there’s a small group of individuals who play an important, high-level role in deciding in deciding how schools are run: the school board.

School boards have been around longer than America itself. According to the National School Boards Association, local control of public education began in 1647, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law requiring towns to establish and maintain schools.

Today, there are nearly 95,000 school board members around the country. A school board, also known as a board of education or school committee, is composed of anywhere from three to 15 elected members, although some boards, like New York City’s, are appointed by local or state government officials. School boards oversee a wide range of academic, legal and financial issues, from approving curriculum to hiring the superintendent.

But there’s also a greater responsibility school board members share.

“Being on the board is being a representative of our community, hearing all the sides, and figuring out what works best for all of our students,” says Rae Gallagher, a school board member in Frederick County, Maryland.

At a time when school board members are facing unprecedented protests and political challenges, it’s important to know what school boards do and how to get involved.

What Do School Board Members Do?

By and large, school board members are unpaid volunteers who must balance careers and family with the demands of overseeing a public school district. In general, all school boards have three major responsibilities: developing the annual budget to run the school system; setting school policies; and hiring and evaluating the superintendent.

David Weinstein joined the school committee in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in January 2020. While much of his role encompasses those areas, his responsibilities by no means end there.

“People in the community will come to the school committee with questions and concerns that don’t fall into just one of those buckets,” Weinstein says. “I try to be mindful of my role, which is also to help people. Even if things are raised that aren’t part of my role as school committee member, I try to help people get the support they need.”

Kate Noble has had a similar experience in her time as a member of the Santa Fe, New Mexico, board of education. Since being elected in 2017, she has worked on projects that range from big policy initiatives, like establishing affordable housing for teachers and adopting a new mastery-based grading system, to individual constituent services, like helping find space for an indoor soccer program.

“People say, ‘Why would you do this?’ But what’s wonderful about being a school board member is that a day-in-the-life can be incredibly varied,” Noble says.

Even for those with a background in education, it’s hard to understand the demands of the job until you actually do it, members say. Matt Sears has served on the Durham County Board of Education in North Carolina since 2014. Although he taught in the system for seven years, he says it was a big learning curve for him to understand all the components that go into making a school system function. But that constant learning is also what keeps him on the job.

“Every year you learn more and get better at asking important questions and assessing your district’s progress,” Sears says. “Once you build this institutional knowledge you become more effective, and feeling effective keeps me going.”

As influential as school boards are, the day-to-day operations of a district remain the responsibility of the superintendent, including hiring staff, measuring student performance and responding to crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. And even when it comes to some of their main responsibilities, boards are not all-powerful. When setting the budget, for example, school boards do not have revenue-raising authority and need approval from county or state officials. Some districts must depend on voters to finance projects such as building new schools or making major renovations.

School boards are inextricably linked with their local communities, and it’s crucial for them to partner with other elected officials as well as local employers, colleges, nonprofits and others.

In Maryland’s Frederick County, for example, booming housing development has led to overflowing classrooms, so the board works closely with their elected county officials, says Gallagher. That includes “how developers contribute to the school systems, with buildings that are safe and welcoming and not overcrowded, and making sure we have enough funding to support all the families coming into the county,” she says.

Running for School Board 

Although it can be rewarding, serving on a school board is also “hard work and time-consuming,” says Weinstein, and between campaigning and evening meetings, it can be especially challenging for parents of young children.

“I often say, I’m not doing this for my kids,” he says. “I care deeply about my kids’ well-being, but if that’s all I cared about, there are much easier ways of going about it than running and serving on the school committee. It’s really about the community and education.”

It’s also one thing to serve on a school board, but another thing entirely to run for it. While typically less competitive than other local elected positions, running for school board is no walk in the park.

Gallagher first ran for school board in 2020. “I thought I had a good skill set to be on the board, but running a campaign was a completely different story,” she says. Though she lost, Gallagher learned from that first campaign and successfully won election inNovember 2022.

“I think for me what was most helpful was getting connected to other folks running for office in the county and working with them, really coordinating campaigns and learning from them,” she says. “And the thing I found really effective was knocking on doors and talking to people. That’s not something everyone feels comfortable with. I didn’t the first time.”

“Campaigning, you can’t do it alone,” says Sears. “People have to ask themselves if they have the support of people who will go knock on doors in bad weather. Yard signs don’t matter that much.”

For any aspiring school board member, the first step is learning about the election requirements, deadlines and processes for where you live. You can find those through your state school board association. The next most important thing? Actually attending a school board meeting and learning what to expect if you are elected.

Candidates interested in running can find lots of state and national organizations that assist with the nuts and bolts of campaigning. For Noble, a national organization called Emerge, which recruits and trains Democratic women candidates, was a huge help.

And while anyone can learn the skills to develop a budget or evaluate a superintendent, it takes a certain temperament to become an effective school board member and make tough decisions. Many say that’s something no amount of training can prepare you for.

“Even conducting yourself in a public meeting when people get angry and come and say unfair things, what do you do,” Noble says. “How do you both listen and absorb what someone’s issue and pain point is and protect yourself, taking on the responsibility and guilt and weight of everything that stakeholders in the system bring to you?”

Gallagher has advice from her short time as a school board member.

“You need to be calm and listen and understand where people are coming from. Everything else you can learn,” Gallagher says. “The biggest thing is working together, because most boards aren’t one person, and everyone has ideas.”