4 big issues are to blame for this fall’s rougher school board races

'A superintendent cannot win engaging in electoral politics,' leadership expert says
By: | October 29, 2021
(AdobeStock)(AdobeStock)

Controversial issues have roiled education for years but the combination of COVID and the culture wars is polarizing school board races more deeply than ever before, observers say.

States are seeing record numbers of first-time candidates this fall and a greater presence of political parties after a year in which police have been called to school board meetings to deal with disruptive members of the public.

“I have over 40 years of working with school boards, and this is by far the toughest election season I’ve seen,” says Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. “I have seen members this year who have left their boards and decided not to run again because of the intensity of the politics in their local districts.”

He knows of at least one recent incident in his state where police were called to a school board policy committee meeting. In other cases, school board members have been harassed and followed to the cars by people screaming profanities, Rader says.

“Certainly, the big three issues that we have seen seem to be a combination of anti-masking, anti-vaccination and the whole issue of whether critical race theory is being taught in the schools,” says Rader, adding that due to a state mask mandate, school boards have no role in requiring students to wear face coverings.

Rader’s organization has hosted workshops and webinars on how to conduct meetings in divisive times, and how to maintain order to ensure the board gets its work done.

“Our board chairs, board members and superintendents have ensured that the public gets its say at meetings in public comments and that all who attend board meetings realize it is a meeting held in public, not a public meeting,” Rader says. “I am hoping things become less divisive and more unified after the elections, and that boards have the ability to really focus on student learning and what they need to make their districts and their students successful.”

Understanding the school board commitment

In Ohio, 1,749 candidates ran for school board in 2017; that number jumped to 2,048—including about 800 new challengers—in 2019. But this year, more than 1,300 first-timers and about 1,270 incumbents are running, accounting for a 50% increase in candidates, says Rick Lewis, chief executive officer of the Ohio School Boards Association.

What should superintendents do?

They, and their administrative teams, should stay out of it, says Peter Gorman, a K-12 leadership consultant and former superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. “A superintendent cannot win engaging in electoral politics, but a superintendent loses if they don’t pay attention to electoral politics,” Gorman notes.

School board elections this fall have become as divisive as Congressional and other higher-profile national races, he adds. “‘I’m not used to as much vitriol as there is right now,” Gorman says. “Like other types of elections, school board races are being pulled more towards the polls, and that’s disconcerting.”

Regardless of who wins this fall’s races, superintendents need to immediately engage with the new board to set goals, expectations and priorities, and review roles and responsibilities in governing the school district.

He attributes some of that growth to his organization’s campaign to motivate more people to serve their communities by running for school board seats.

“We can’t deny it—some of the issues of the day have been so polarizing, so emotional, so passionate, there are candidates coming forward who would like to see a change in the direction of their districts, whether that’s masks, vaccines, critical race theory or transgender athletes. We have three or four issues that have really split communities.”

Another big change in this fall’s races is the presence of political parties in what had traditionally been non-partisan elections.

“It’s really a recent phenomenon—the campaign literature I’m seeing says ‘vote Republican’ or ‘vote Democratic’ for school board with a picture of the donkey or elephant,” Lewis says. “That’s something we haven’t seen before.”

Of course, there have been divisive school boards issues for decades. In the 1950s and ’60s, educators grappled with desegregation and creationism, in the 1970s and ’80s, it was textbook banning and HIV-positive students, and more recently, boards have split over arming school personnel.

“At end of the day, it’s our hope that anybody running for school board recognizes they’re being elected for four years,” he says. “Their job is to make the school district a better place to learn, to give kids a better chance in life, to make their state stronger—it’s more than just or one or two two issues. There’s a big picture involved.”

Looking on the bright side

Masking and critical race theory are certainly bringing more attention to school board races in Kansas this fall, particularly in large communities. And this is likely the result of school board meetings that have been growing more contentious since districts began planning to return to in-person learning before the 2020-21 school year, says Mark Tallman, the associate executive director for advocacy at the Kansas Association of School Boards.

Campaign signs in Roanoke, Texas. (AdobeStock)

Campaign signs in Roanoke, Texas. (AdobeStock)

“We have certainly heard from some board members that have felt more opposition, more heated language, heightened rhetoric, and more of a sense people being very, very angry,” Tallman says. “There have been a few cases where they have said they felt threatened and instances where boards have had to suspend meetings and clear a room.”

But there is no clear evidence of higher than usual turnover among members or a surge in new candidates, Tallman says.

His organization has encouraged boards dealing with controversial issues to conduct surveys and form committees that comprise educators, parents, and other community stakeholders. It has also guided boards in setting clear ground rules for public hearings in an effort to head off disruptions.

“When these steps are followed, it can diffuse some of the anger and get to to the constructive work,” Tallman says.

And some see a silver lining in the increase in candidates running for school boards this fall, despite the growing partisanship. Colorado is experiencing both phenomenons, even in districts where just finding candidates was a challenge in past years, says Cheri Wrench, executive director of the state’s association of school boards.

“With schools going remote, there’s been a lot more opportunity to see what’s happening in classrooms and people are taking a renewed interest in civic duty,” Wrench says. “People have definite opinions on decisions that are being made right now.”