What is the job of the school board, anyway?
Work holds little appeal for many people, even as new studies question boards' role in an era of reform.
It's the job that gave Jimmy Carter his start in politics.Skip to next paragraph
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It has alternately been described as "the most important volunteer job in this country" and "the toughest job in elected American government."
It's the job of a school board member, and with the current intense focus on education in today's political arena, the work isn't getting any easier.
"Every politician you can name is making education the No. 1 issue," says Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Board Association, based in Alexandria, Va. That kind of scrutiny, she says, puts "a lot of pressure on school board members."
In addition, groups concerned with educational reform are raising fresh questions about the role of school boards.
Traditionally, they oversee the budget, establish policy, and hire superintendents. But a recent study of executive directors of state school boards suggests some have become too bogged down in the day-to-day management of schools, and recommends new state laws more clearly limiting boards to policy decisions.
Meanwhile, the New York City Board of Education announced last week - in recognition of the growing complexity of the tasks boards face - that it will break with tradition by bringing in outside experts from business, government, and community organizations to sit on some of its permanent committees.
The vast majority of the approximately 95,000 members on the almost 15,000 school boards in the United States are elected - rather than appointed - to their positions. Almost none are paid. Most spend a minimum of three to four hours a week on their board duties, while for some it becomes the equivalent of a full-time job.
For many, the work has become increasingly thankless. "You're sitting in the hot seat," says Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association in Trenton. "And often times there's not a lot of glory in it."
A relentless sense of pressure may be one reason why it's getting difficult to get candidates to run for their local school board in some parts of the country.
In Iowa, for instance, 59 percent of candidates ran unopposed in 1998, according to the Iowa Association of School Boards in Des Moines, up from 51 percent in 1996. And yet in other districts - especially urban areas - the races are more hotly contested than ever.
A report by the NSBA earlier this year stated that while a school-board candidate in an urban area might have spent $5,000 to campaign for a seat a few years ago, costs today could be closer to $15,000 to $20,000.
Some observers suggest, however, that the current fascination with education could be driving both movements. The same force that makes these jobs higher-profile than ever attracts certain kinds of candidates but repels others.
Motives for serving on a school board are as diverse as the boards themselves. Many people get involved because they have children in school. Others are looking for a way to exert influence in their communities. Some are single-issue candidates, hoping to see schools adopt a particular curriculum, or come in line with a specific political ideology. There are also those who are merely attracted by the patronage possibilities the job offers.
But for people who serve simply to make a positive difference in their communities, the tight scrutiny and relentless criticism focused on many public schools today are discouraging forces.
More and more schools are under pressure to show student improvement on standardized test scores, and school boards are often the first to feel the heat if scores don't instantly inch upward.