Until 1995, school board members in Fairfax County were appointed. (This vestige of the Byrd Machine was a holdover from the shameful history of Massive Resistance.) But after an amendment to the Virginia Constitution, board members have been elected every four years. This is one of those years.
School board positions are designed to be nonpartisan, and candidates appear on the ballot without party designation. But from that first election, both parties have endorsed a slate of candidates. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I was one of the 1995 Democratic endorsees.)
Now 24 years after that first election in Fairfax County, there is a renewed discussion of whether political endorsements are still the best way to choose school board candidates. I’ll write more about that later. But based on some of the literature I have seen from candidates seeking the office for the first time, it’s probably most useful for me to first offer a few words of advice. Here are some things I wish I’d known before I first went on the school board:
1. You have a very important job. So does the superintendent. Those jobs are not the same.
There’s a simple way to describe the two roles: Boards make policy, superintendents carry it out. Inevitably, some board members want to cross over into operations. For example, board members are responsible for setting goals for student achievement. They are responsible for monitoring progress toward those goals. But they are not responsible for hiring or firing a principal of a school or a teacher in a classroom.
2. Don’t freelance. As a school board member, you will be asked to intervene in many school-level decisions. Foremost among them will be requests to overturn discipline decisions made by school administrators. “My child was suspended, and it’s so unfair,” you will hear. “I want you to call that principal and get this overturned.”
Board members need to understand that they probably couldn't do this even if they wanted to. But to save everyone time, remember that students and their families can be, to borrow a favorite English-teacher phrase, unreliable narrators. In ten years of doing discipline hearings, I only once ever met a student who admitted he’d started a fight that led to disciplinary action. (“The kid was really bugging me, so I popped him,” was, I believe, his matter-of-fact explanation.) The reports of administrators, teachers, security officers, and other students typically told another tale.
Instead of focusing on a kid, think about policy. If there are concerns that a school is treating students differently based on issues like race, that is the issue that the board can and should raise. If teachers report that school administrators do not support them in their efforts to make sure all students have a chance to learn, then that is an issue for the board. If a school is overly punitive for minor offenses, that could be an issue for the board. But overturning one kid’s suspension will only serve to undermine the hard work of teachers and school administrators.
3. You are actually not the first person to serve on your school board. Even in 1995, as the first elected school board in Fairfax County, we knew we were not the first people ever to hold this responsibility. (Many of us, in fact, had been appointed members.) Many of the 2019 candidates will, if elected, hold public office for the first time.
Fresh ideas are great and welcome. But it's also okay to build on the good work that previous boards have done. It’s a good idea to consult with others who have served on the board. It’s an even better idea to talk with teachers and community leaders and students.
4. You do not have to have all the answers. You just have to have the right questions.
The worst board members I ever served with thought they knew all the answers. The best board members were in the habit of asking questions. Why does the school division do things that way? What other approaches were considered? Don’t worry that people will think less of you for asking the question. Truth to tell, many of them – including possibly even some members who have been on the board for a while – will be wondering the same thing.