School districts in New York State put their budgets before voters this week. After large and highly unpopular reductions to teaching staff last year, many schools were forced to cut even further this year. Schools are worried that residents who haven’t been vocal will express their unhappiness quietly at the polls Tuesday.
The news media are gearing up to cover the outcomes and the controversies.
This time last year I was reading 25 local news sites each morning for EmpirePage.com. The school board stories for the week looked something like this:
- Monday: stories saying tomorrow is the school board voting
- Tuesday: stories saying today is the school board vote
- Wednesday: stories giving the outcomes of the vote
- Thursday: stories about school superintendents handing in their resignations
- Friday through Sunday: stories about how next year is going to be an even tougher year for school budgets.
I suspect we’re going to see history repeat itself.
On May 15 school board elections will take place in New York State, along with voting on school district budgets. Similar votes will be taking place in school districts across the country. Despite the importance of education and the considerable power wielded by school boards, the qualifications for board membership are surprisingly low.
In order to run for school board seat in New York State, for example, candidates must meet four qualifications:
- Candidates must be over the age of 18.
- Candidates must be able to read and write.
- Candidates must live in the district they wish to represent (districts set the length of time candidates must have lived in the district prior to seeking the board seat.
- Candidates must be qualified to vote in that district.
In other words, to be elected to a public school board in the Empire State, candidates are not required to have achieved a specific educational level. They do not need to have ever attended either a public or private school. There’s nothing that requires board members to have a specific proficiency in reading and writing, nor are they required to read and write English. If candidates say they can read and write, that satisfies the law.
State law prohibits certain people from running for school board. Candidates in New York State:
- Cannot be employed by the board on which they wish to serve.
- Cannot live in the same household with a family member who is also a member of the same school board.
- Cannot simultaneously hold another incompatible public office.
- Cannot have been removed from a school district office within the previous year
These prohibitions are designed to protect against conflicts of interest, but they offer no buffer against common situations in which:
- The candidate’s spouse is an employee of the school board.
- The candidate’s child is an employee of the school board.
- The candidate’s parents are employees of the school board.
- The candidate’s siblings are employees of the school board.
The fact that someone has ties to an employee of the school board does not mean that candidate cannot exercise independent judgment. Far from it. It is simply one factor that voters need to consider when evaluating the candidates.
If you want a school board that will represent the best interests of the whole community, you must educate yourself at least to the extent of learning enough about school board candidates to vote intelligently. Some school boards and community groups offer opportunities for the public to meet and ask questions of school board candidates. If you are fortunate enough to live in a community that provides such an opportunity, seize it. State law offers no protection against the effects of indifference.