Retired Collingswood Director of Curriculum Thomas Anderson offers some thoughts on how to make your choices on Election Day.
By Thomas Anderson, Ph.D.
As you can tell by the number of lawn signs springing up in the area, it’s election season.
With a national eye turned towards next year’s presidential race and the Congressional midterm elections having passed a year ago, the contests of most immediate interest involve the local boards of education.
How much do you really know about these candidates and their positions on taxes, instruction, school facilities or a host of other educational issues?
For that matter, how much do you know about boards of education in general and their appropriate role in educating young people?
Here are a few thoughts that may guide you before you head to the polls.
The role of the school board in public education
The main role of boards of education is to approve policies that are consistent with New Jersey law and regulations. They do not administer these policies. This job belongs to a district superintendent or chief school administrator; someone hired by a board to run its schools. By state law, boards may not hire teachers, principals or other staff without the recommendations of their superintendents.
The second important function of school boards is to approve the annual budget for the upcoming school year. Since 2012, New Jersey public school budgets that do not increase more than 2 percent in a given year are not subject to a public referendum. With state aid having been relatively flat for the past several years, many public school systems must balance their mandates to provide high-quality instructional programs for all students while keeping tax increases to a minimum.
Finally, boards must approve their district curricula annually. For Pre-K-12 districts, this may consist of hundreds of courses, each with its own set of objectives, learning activities, and instructional resources.
In carrying out these responsibilities, board members must remember that they act as part of a larger elective body, not as individuals with a single-minded agenda. They must also maintain confidentiality in all matters dealing with personnel, financial, and legal matters.
Given this multi-faceted nature of school governance, what should voters look for in potential board of education members? Here are five questions you may want to consider before you enter the voting booth.
1. How well do you know the critical issues in your school district?
Each school district has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. As a parent, you may learn about these during a back-to-school night or at PTA meetings.
The state also gathers significant data about every school district: annual school report cards that include standardized test performance, SAT scores, and Advanced Placement test results. The state also publishes yearly spending guides that compare how your district spent its educational dollars in comparison with other districts in New Jersey. Other critical information about your school (such as enrollment, high school graduation rates and special education data) also can be found on the NJDOE website.
2. How well do you know the way your local school board operates?
One of the best ways to find out how your board of education functions is to attend a school board meeting. Meetings are held once or twice a month on dates listed on your district website. If you can’t attend a meeting, the official agenda and minutes from previous meetings should also be found there.
At every board meeting, members of the public are permitted to ask questions of administrators and board members. Take advantage of this time to find answers and clarify issues that are important to you.
3. How well do you know the candidates?
The key qualifications for board members are fairly simple. They must be U.S. citizens, residents of the district for at least one year, and able to read and write. Given the complexities of modern school governance, of course, there is much more that voters need to consider. Whether incumbent or newcomer, you should pay attention to their qualifications and experience.
What are the candidates’ educational backgrounds? Did they pursue higher education after high school? Do they have work experiences that would contribute to the expertise on the board? You won’t be able answer these questions from lawn signs, so you have to ask, look for further information in the media, or attend a “Meet the Candidates Night” if one is planned in your community.
If candidates are aware of the issues in your school district and can speak intelligently about them, these are signs of potentially good board members. In addition, many of them have websites or Facebook pages on which they may elaborate on their backgrounds and educational positions, giving you plenty of opportunities to scrutinize each before Election Day.
4. How well do you know their platforms?
Most people running for school board truly want to work for the benefit of all. They also want their schools to run smoothly, in a financially prudent way, and with minimal disruption.
There have been a few, however, for whom this is not the case. They may have had an issue with a teacher or principal and are seeking retribution; they may be unhappy with the football team’s win-loss record, or they may want to slash spending arbitrarily to appease public sentiment. Some may see board membership as a stepping-stone to higher elective office.
Stay away from these self-serving candidates and vote for those who will work as a team for all children.
Get out and vote
Now that you know all about your local district and candidates for the Board of Education, it’s time to make a decision. This year school board elections will take place on Tuesday, November 3. Prior to that time, you should be receiving in the mail a sample ballot that will list all the candidates for local office, your local polling place and times.
Remember, voting is both a privilege and a responsibility, for our country, state and perhaps most of all for our children. The famous educator John Dewey declared that the great purpose of education is to promote our democratic way of life. Let’s do our part by voting for excellent candidates to boards of education in order to help advance this noble purpose.
Thomas Anderson, Ph.D. enjoyed a 40-year career in education, 27 of which were spent as the Collingswood school district Director of Curriculum, a position from which he retired in 2012.