So, What Does a School Board Do, Anyway?

So, What Does a School Board Do, Anyway?

High school is the critical juncture for young adults. It’s when they have—or should have—the opportunities to decide their pathway to success and fulfillment in life. It bridges their K-8 education and their future lives as adults with good jobs and successful careers. It’s also a place and time for profound personal, social-emotional, and intellectual growth. The latest research shows that teenage brains are primed to learn, with big changes happening in parts of the brain that control reasoning, planning, and self-control. With the right stimulation, even IQ—once viewed as immutable—can increase during these important years. We have a responsibility to ensure students’ high school years set them up for lifelong success long after graduation.

For communities across America, the best way to get involved in redesigning your local high school so that it serves all students and prepares each student for success in college and career is the school board. School boards are a way for community members to spur high school transformation in their community. However, it can be intimidating getting involved and learning what exactly school boards do to affect change in their school districts. Luckily, we wrote a comprehensive guide that illuminates just that.

What Is a School Board?

School boards are responsible for the education of a community’s young people, ensuring all students have access to a high-quality, rigorous education that prepares them for college, career, and life. Boards usually consist of five to nine elected or appointed representatives from the community, who meet regularly to discuss and decide issues related to local schools. They base their decisions on input from the superintendent, families, teachers, students, and the general public.

Who Serves On a School Board?

School board members are elected or appointed members of the community who pursue a vision for local schools reflecting the needs of the students, the wishes of the voters, and the consensus of the community.

Nationwide, school boards control more than $600 billion annually and oversee the education of 50 million students. And yet few people know what school boards do or even who their local school board members are.

What Do School Boards Do?

School boards address a wide array of issues, from the daily logistics of running a district to broader goals for the education of a community’s young people. On a practical, day-to-day level, school boards:

  • Hire and evaluate the superintendent
  • Approve budgets
  • Set spending priorities
  • Approve textbooks and other curriculum materials
  • Adopt the annual school calendar
  • Make decisions regarding opening and closing schools
  • Work closely with school and district leaders on school schedules, supplies, safety, discipline, classroom resources, facilities, and other issues.

Beyond the practical tasks, effective school boards set a vision for a community’s young people, helping them achieve a world-class education that prepares them for life beyond high school. Broader tasks include setting high academic standards, supporting teachers and staff, ensuring transparency and accountability, creating a safe and positive school culture, and advancing policies that allow every student to thrive. As controversies arise, school boards pursue consensus, reconcile differences, reach a compromise, and find solutions.

School boards are accountable for how schools—and students—perform. School boards accomplish this by creating strong relationships with parents, teachers, students, and community members. It’s critical that school board members listen to and respond to community concerns and explain the district’s priorities to the public. Doing so helps both schools and students reach their full potential.

In the continued wake of COVID-19 and school shutdowns, school boards play a large role in engaging students and families, accelerating student learning, and providing equitable opportunities for all students now and into the future. School boards today have a larger role in redesigning more equitable schools too. With unprecedented funds heading into schools from the American Resue Plan and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund, school boards will play a role in how that money is spent. 

What Do School Board Members Do?

Primary school board member responsibilities include hiring and evaluating the superintendent, setting the annual budget for the district, and reviewing and adopting policies. School board members are responsible for attending all board meetings, the frequency of which varies by district. 

Outside of regular meetings, school board members may also participate in school board training sessions, attend school functions, and meet with community stakeholders.

How Does The School Board Interact With The Superintendent, Teachers, And Families?

The school board, district leadership, and families work together to promote high-quality education for students. But they all play different roles:

  • School boards set the vision, goals, and policy for the district.
  • The superintendent answers to the board, implementing policies and directives, making recommendations, providing leadership, and generally serving as a resource. As the chief executive of the district, the superintendent handles day-to-day operations, oversees staff, and stays current on state and national education issues.
  • Parents—and the public at large—may attend school board meetings, ask questions, volunteer, get involved in their local schools, vote, and hold the board accountable.

It is also really important for school boards to listen to and connect with students and listen to what they need for success in school and in life. For instance, Elizabethton High School—an XQ school located in Elizabethton, Tennessee—received ESSER funds to help the school recover after a year of pandemic protocols and remote learning. Elizabethton used their investment to elevate student voice and provide students with the opportunity to discuss how their community would spend this investment. 

This discussion with students was not just a one-off for Elizabethton or its school board. In fact, Elizabethton has a student liaison sit on its school board to speak to student needs. 

Why Are School Boards Important?

High schools are the fulcrum for educational transformation. Change high schools, and you change the entire system, from kindergarten through college. We believe that engaged and supportive school boards are essential for making the changes that need to happen in our high schools. School boards help prepare students for the modern world by making changes like ensuring equitable access to rigorous courses, implementing schedules that allow for project-based learning, and making sure teachers have the right professional development and support.

School boards can also take an active role in promoting equity and making sure all students get a high-quality education. They partner with superintendents, teachers, families, students, nonprofits, employers, and local colleges to break down barriers to learning, open up real-world learning opportunities, and create pipelines to college and career.

How to Become a School Board Member

Everyone can get involved in their local school boards, by attending meetings, asking questions, supporting candidates, or even deciding to run for office themselves. Most school board members have never held prior office—they’re just ordinary people who care about their local schools and the future of the community’s young people.

If you’re considering running for your local school board, here are some tips to get you started:

  • Find your local school board using our School Board Lookup Tool
  • Gather data, evidence, and facts about your community and its schools
  • Identify challenges affecting local schools, as well as solutions
  • Craft a compelling campaign narrative about why you’re running and how you’ll make a positive difference
  • Talk to families, students, teachers, and community leaders to understand their visions and concerns about local schools
  • Inspire people to get involved and vote
  • And, learn what it takes to be a good school board member too! 

School Board FAQs

Still have questions? We have answers! We asked readers their questions, and compiled answers we hope will set you on the road to getting more involved with your local school board—voting, attending meetings, or even running for office.

Who is eligible to run for school board?

The rules vary by state and district, but in most cases, school boards are open to all registered voters who live in the district and are not employees of the district. School board members do NOT need to have children enrolled in local schools, or have prior government experience.

Do private and charter schools have boards?

Charter schools and private schools have their own boards and are not governed by local school district boards. But these boards are important, too. “That’s a School Board Thing” puts it this way: “A charter board has significant responsibility for ensuring that the school provides a great education, complies with relevant laws and regulations, and uses public resources responsibly. It sets the vision for the school and makes critical decisions about resources, school leadership, and strategic planning.” Charter and private school board positions are usually appointed. Contact the school you’re interested in to learn more.

Who can vote in school board elections?

In most states, voters in school board elections must be citizens of the United States, at least 18 years old, and residents of the school district. However, some municipalities do allow noncitizens to vote in local elections, so you should check your local voter guidelines before elections. 

How do school boards approach issues I care about?

School boards do not handle the district’s day-to-day operations, but they do set the vision, goals, and priorities for the district and its schools. They can decide to make special education a priority, for example, set specific goals for district leaders, and hold them accountable. If certain issues are important to you, let your board members know.

Does XQ contribute to school board campaigns?

No. XQ Institute is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to rethinking high school in the U.S. Our mission is to fuel America’s collective creativity to transform high school so every student succeeds—no matter their race, gender, or zip code.

Do school boards oversee pre-kindergarten? Colleges?

That depends on the district, although most K-12 school districts do offer pre-K. Colleges are governed separately.

Why don’t student members get a full vote?

Each district is different, but in most cases, student members serve in advisory roles and are not allowed to vote on board matters because they haven’t been elected by the public. Most jurisdictions have minimum age requirements for serving in public office, usually 18 or 21.

Are school board members paid? 

State and local laws determine how much school board members get paid. Commitment levels can vary from a few hours a week in small rural districts, where the board might only meet twice a month, to more than 40 hours a week in large urban districts, where boards may meet weekly and have numerous subcommittees. If you’re thinking about running for school board, talk to current and former board members in your district about their time commitments and how the job affects their personal and professional life.

How long do school board members hold their seats?

Typically, four years.

How do school board members manage bond money and other funding?

School boards set funding priorities and are responsible for the fiscal health of the district, ensuring the district spends taxpayers’ money in accordance with community values.

I’m a current school board member. How can I leverage my voice if I’m not in the majority on the board? What’s the best way to get my agenda passed?

Building alliances and community outreach are important skills for a successful board member. “Coalition building is the name of the game,” said Elisa Hoffman, founder and executive director of School Board School and a former member of the Cincinnati Public Schools Board of Education. “If you feel that your voice isn’t resonating, reach out to people whose voice might be a better fit for what you want to accomplish—either other school board members, nonprofits, community leaders, students, anyone who might be able to get your message across in a way people will listen.”

How much does it cost to run for a school board?

Candidate filing fees vary by district, and campaigns can be as inexpensive or as costly as you choose. More important than fundraising, though, is creating a network of supporters: volunteers, a cabinet of experts, partners in the business and nonprofit communities, and students and families who support your vision for local schools.

How can I get involved in my local school board?

Attend school board meetings, get to know board members, volunteer for candidates you support and vote! Check here to find out who your local school board members are, where and when they meet, and when the next election is.

How can school boards fix “broken” schools?

School boards don’t get involved in the day-to-day operations of schools, but they can provide direction, leadership, and resources to help schools improve and keep successful schools on the right track. “Fixing a ‘broken’ school is the responsibility of the superintendent and people on the ground in the school—principals, teachers, staff,” Hoffman said. “But as a board member, you can work with the superintendent to set a vision, mission, and goals for the district. If a school isn’t performing well, work with your superintendent to set specific, measurable goals, not just for that school but for schools across your district. Your job is to hold the superintendent accountable via their annual evaluation.” School boards can put equity at the forefront of their agenda, and even launch school redesign, to ensure that all students get a high-quality education that prepares them for college, career, and life.

How do local school boards interact with state and federal governments?

School boards govern local schools, but some policies and funding decisions come from other public agencies and boards, such as county boards of education, state departments of education, state school boards, and the U.S. Department of Education. States, for example, typically control how much per-pupil money each district receives, while the federal government sets policies surrounding civil rights protections, special education, programs for low-income children, and other issues.

How do I decide what school board candidates to support?

A great school board candidate:

  • Is knowledgeable about issues and challenges affecting the entire district, not just their neighborhood school.
  • Can articulate specific goals and priorities, “and isn’t just throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks,” Hoffman said. They also understand what a school board has the power to change, and what lies outside the board’s purview.
  • Has the personal characteristics, like teamwork, accountability, and self reflection, that make a good school board member.
  • Listens to constituents and district employees, and treats everyone with respect. They know how to build coalitions and can work well with people of all backgrounds and viewpoints. “They should be a constant learner,” Hoffman explained.
  • Clearly communicates their positions and is transparent about the decision-making process.
  • Has priorities and a vision for local young people that matches your own.

Learn more about school boards, the vital role they play in education, and how to get involved by checking out XQ’s free “That’s a School Board Thing.” This guide offers a comprehensive look at the important work school boards do, how to run for office, and once elected, how to be an effective school board member.