The local school board serves as the cornerstone of authority for America's public schools. Nearly 16,000 independent and locally elected bodies are responsible for conducting, equipping, and maintaining the schools in the United states.
And although schools and school boards are almost totally decentralized, their institutional stamp is visible in the centralized ease with which students can transfer from one district to another anywhere in the country.
Some of the principal responsibilities of any governing school board are:
* Appointment of the superintendent of schools.
* Setting the course of study (the curriculum) the schools will pursue.
* Submission of fund-raising proposals to the voters, supervision of the monies involved and how the money will be used to conduct, operate, and maintain the educational plant.
* Formulation of policy for managing schools and school properties.
* Creation of rules governing the employment and discharge of school board employees.
* Enforcing state law regarding school regulations.
''School boards are the hallmark of our democractic strength. Unique to the United States, they give our education system a built-in diversity and a commitment to excellence at the local level,'' says Thomas Shannon, executive director of the National School Board Association, (NSBA).
Their jurisdiction rests on the same democratic principles that have given the US universal and free public education.
But just how democratic US school systems are is called into doubt by observers who point out that average voter turnout for a school board election rarely tops 10 percent.
''Low voter turnout is very distressing,'' says Mr. Shannon, ''and school boards are attempting to improve the record. But an average figure can be misleading. It can be interpreted as meaning people are satisfied just as readily as it can be interpreted as peole don't care.''
Since schools are the area of government closest to the people, without widespread community support they run the risk of becoming the whipping boy for frustrations people have with the more distant state and federal bodies, say school board officials.
In a poll of the issues most important to its members, the NSBA lists three that bear out this concern:
(1) Lack of financial support for the schools; (2) declining enrollment with the ensuing problems of school closings and the decline in state reimbursement funds on a per-pupil basis; and (3) the lack of parental interest in schools (with the added challenge of more and more adults not even having children in the public schools.)
''One way to highlight how a local, democratically controlled system of education differs from an authoritarian one is to compare the highly centralized French system with that of the US.,'' says Stan Salett of the National Committee for Citizens in Education (NCCE) and a school board member himself in the 25,000 pupil district of Howard County, Md.
He points out that both France and the US must introduce into the classroom the new educational technology made possible by computers. But the use of computers in schools is so new and the technology is changing so rapidly that no one system of computer-assisted instruction exists.
In the US there already is much experimentation, which educators say is mostly good but does have some completely worthless aspects. Yet out of the collective efforts of thousands of school districts, it is safe to assume, there will be in place ten years from now some very effective ways to use computers in the classroom.
Before French school children first start using computers in the classroom, the centralized French education bureaucracy will have chosen which system. How long it will take before the universal system is chosen is an open question, but the bureaucratic selection process will certainly delay the widespread use of computers in French schools.
Another trademark of local school boards in the US, is that membership can often be a stepping stone to higher elected office.
Large urban school districts are likely to have a more politically active board than either rural or suburban districts because of the greater urgency of conflicting social issues. The political track record shows urban candidates are more prone to use their visibility on school issues as paths to higher political office.
Louise Day Hicks in Boston and Bobbie Fiedler in Los Angeles are two of the better-known public figures who did just that. Both piggy-backed their opposition to racial busing to a seat in the US House of Representaives. But this is not to say smaller districts don't have politically ambitious individuals as well. Former President Jimmy Carter served on the Plains, Ga., school board.
''Hiring the superintendent of schools and setting policy and curriculum standards are the two most important functions of a school board member,'' says NCCE's Mr. Salett. ''Not politics.''
Jean Sullivan McKeigue, a member of the Boston School Committee, couldn't agree more with Mr. Salette. ''Too often in the past Boston has been known for its strong board members and not its strong superintendents. I hope to play some part in changing that image.''
A 40-hour week without pay is routine for this mother of four in the Boston schools.
''Most school board members are ordinary citizens, usually nonprofessional educators who for the most part really care about their schools and their kids, '' said Mr. Salett. ''They're a democratic mechanism that makes public education responsive to the community.''
At the other end of the spectrum, small town and rural school board members are likely to know all the teachers, and most of the students and parents on a first-name basis.
Carl Jensen, a rancher serving his eighth year as a member of the board in rural La Vina School District in Montana, certainly does. There are 105 students in the district with 27 at the high school. When asked why he is willing to serve, he says, ''You kinda feel it's your duty in a small community like this. My father served for 21 years, and I have three boys in the schools. It keeps me closer to them and the schools.''
''Such school board members are the salt of the earth,'' says Mr. Shannon of the National School Board Association.
But when it comes to the ''flavor'' of this salt, Dr. Sharon Robinson of the National Education Association would like to see a little more sharpness for the public's taste to fit the difficult times schools now face.
''In the future school boards are going to have to be advocates for quality education,'' she says. ''Their stewardship is going to call for an assertive role, a role of leadership where education is seen as an intellectual development process for students who must be taught as lifelong learners in our information based economy.''