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School Boards

Selection And Education Of Members

Local control of public education, grounded in the federal constitution, is exercised through local school boards. Although they enjoy some autonomy, local school boards are the product of state legislatures with enumerated powers. The federal government, state legislature, and state boards of education also make policy decisions affecting local schools.

In 2000 about 95,000 school board members adopted policies for some l5,000 public school districts. Due to consolidations and other restructuring, the number of school districts has dramatically declined from 1940, when there were 117,000. The state of Hawaii has only one board of education for the entire state. From 1999 to 2000 public school districts educated about 47 million students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 with about 3 million teachers, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Elected Versus Appointed Members

Most states prefer to elect school board members: Citizens in school districts elect more than 94 percent of their school board members. Several states both elect and appoint members. There is an increasing trend to appoint and not elect superintendents.

The typical school board member is a college-educated homeowner, who lives in a suburb or small town, and serves a school system enrolling between 1,000 and 5,000 students. Many districts are larger or smaller and reflect a greater diversity in membership. In western states, school boards have a higher percentage of Hispanics than do boards in other parts of the country. In southern states, 16 percent of school board members are African American, the highest percentage in the country, according to the National School Boards Association.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Selection Processes

Advocates of electing school board members argue that elected boards are more responsive to the public will. In addition, electing members increases public interest in the schools as it ensures that people have a direct voice in the selection of the school system's governing body. Elected school board members have greater independence and freedom to act in the best interests of the school system than do appointed board members. An elected board is in a better position to work closely and effectively with its superintendent and professional staff than an appointed board.

The proponents of appointing board members assert that the appointive method provides opportunity for greater selectivity in choosing board members, thus assuring capable board members with proper motives. Appointment of board members helps ensure harmonious working relationships between the school board and the local government. Appointing board members ensures board stability and continuity of service are better secured by the appointive method. The elective method encourages candidates for board office to develop issues for their public appeal or to make charges against incumbent board members or professional staff in order to secure votes, while appointed board members generate less community controversy. In order to depoliticize the process and to be proactive in candidate selection, some school districts work through a citizen advisory or caucus process in order to identify and seek out qualified school board candidates.

There is no definitive literature on whether elected or appointed school boards are more effective in improving student achievement. Furthermore, governance and organizational changes do not appear to improve classroom instruction.

Geographic Selection

Most school board members are elected from single-member districts; however, some school board members are elected at large. It has been argued that single-member districts tend to create a more parochial school board member; however, at large elections a single-member district can generate legal challenges in states covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Several lawsuits alleging minority dilution in the establishment of single member or at large elected board districts have been decided (Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board (1997), Perez v. Pasadena Independent School District (5th Cir. 1999), and Valdespino v. Alamo Heights Independent School District (5th Cir. 1999).

Term and Turnover of Office

Most school board members serve terms of three to six years. Most boards have three to nine members; however, some are larger to accommodate large populations or to reflect interests of multiple constituencies. Although in most cases, term limits do not apply to board service, in the 1990s some advocates called for term limits for school board members, arguing that some school board members use their offices for political gain and promotion.

The national tenure for school board members is declining. According to a study by the National School Boards Association, the average term of a board member has dropped from five and a half years in 1982 to five years in 1992. School board members choose not to seek another term because of changing interests, frustrations with the job, and the demands of mounting an election campaign.

State Takeovers

In the 1990s rising national concerns about the quality of public education led states to adopt laws providing for the takeover of school districts or, in some cases, individual schools. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, twenty-four states have enacted policies that allow them to take over a school district due to academic problems within the school district. These state policies provide for application of progressive sanctions on a school district, with the ultimate sanction being a takeover. State policies may also permit a takeover for reasons other than academic problems: these include fiscal mismanagement, inept administration, corrupt governance, and crumbling infrastructure within the school district. Through state law, policy, or court action, the state designates an entity to manage the school district for a certain amount of time.

The consequences for school board members vary. For example, state officials can relieve school board members and other high level administrators of their duties and appoint others to manage the school district in their place. Or, school board members and high level administrators might remain in place as an advisory group. In certain large cities, the mayor has governance authority. In cities such as Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, mayors, enabled by state legislation, have taken over the school systems and assumed the governance of them. Mayors either appoint the school board members or the superintendent or appoint the chief executive officer of the system.

The proponents of state takeovers argue that takeovers are a necessary extension of a state's constitutional responsibilities: They provide a good opportunity for state and local decision makers to combine resources and knowledge to improve children's learning and allow a competent executive staff to guide an uninterrupted and effective implementation of school improvement efforts. State takeovers also serve as a catalyst for creating the right environment for the community to address a school district's problems and allow for more radical, necessary changes in low-performing school districts. Finally, takeovers place school boards on notice that personal agendas, nepotism, and public bickering have severe consequences. Typically the new leadership uses achievement data collected from school districts and schools to bolster accountability efforts.

Opponents of this approach assert that state takeovers represent a thinly veiled attempt to reduce local control over schools and increase state authority over school districts. Takeovers imply that the problem lies with the community and it is up to the state to provide the solution; Thus, there is a false assumption that states have the ability to effectively run school districts. States may place poorly prepared state-selected officials in charge, who will not be able to produce meaningful change in the classroom, and will use narrow learning measures (i.e., standardized test scores) as the primary justification for takeover decisions. State takeovers often focus on cleaning up petty corruption and incompetent administration, and do not go to the root of the social problems that face disadvantaged students in urban school districts. Takeovers can foster negative connotations and impressions that hinder the self-esteem of school board members, administrators, teachers, students, and parents. Finally, takeovers encourage confrontation between state and local officials that slows the overhaul of management practices, drains resources from educational reforms, and reinforces community resentments.

Continuing Education of Board Members

The educational background of school board members varies widely; some members have high school degrees or diplomas and others have doctorates. Formal education by itself does not adequately prepare school board members for their specific functions. Accordingly, many argue that school board training and education should be mandatory for all school board members.

In the 1970s board members attended a national convention, but relatively few attended systematic and targeted programs of continuing education. By 2001, however, more half of the states required mandatory training for school board members. Typically, the school board member must participate in some recognized form of continuing education for a specified number of hours per year. In a study conducted by Marilyn Grady and Bernita Krumm in 1996, it was determined that of forty-three states in the study, ten states had mandatory training for school board members and thirty-two had voluntary training. In some states, if members do not attend training they could lose their seat on the school board. Often they are compensated for attendance at these required continuing education programs. The programs are provided by state school boards association or other recognized school board agencies such as the National School Boards Association or the Council of Urban Boards of Education.


As part of school board training, new school board members need orientation. New board members join a board of existing members who are continuing their service and who have developed a culture and context for their decision-making process. It is important that new school board members understand substantive information on school programs and operations. Without pre-service or orientation programs, it will take at least two years of school board service before board members gain the background and confidence to perform effectively and confidently.

Content of Education

The key topics offered in state training included education law, finance, and board-superintendent relations. Other topics included negotiations, curriculum management, labor relations, policy development, roles and responsibilities, leadership, legislation, community relations, strategic planning, and special education.

A significant new dimension to school board training is acquainting the school board members with research-based information. The data available to educators to support and assess educational programs is extensive. Many school board members are not accustomed to consulting research materials to inform their decisions. Solid information can also form the foundation for alternative solutions and provide the basis for choosing the best option.

In 2000 the National School Boards Association urged school boards to concentrate on raising student achievement by focusing on eight key areas: vision; standards; assessment; accountability; alignment; climate; collaborative relationships; and continuous improvement. This position undergirds the need for adequate school board training on issues of student expectations, achievement, testing, assessment, and accountability. A school board member also needs to be able to respond to questions from the press regarding achievement measures and the school board's assessment of its progress toward meeting its district's measurable goals.

One of the key challenges for school board education is not only to define its objectives and mission, but also to stay focused on these key issues. Even though many school boards attempt to concentrate on student performance and achievement, in some circumstances, boards might devote a minimum amount of their time to these critical issues. To forestall this, there must be a change in governance structure, culture, and agenda of boards so that they will remain focused on student achievement and performance.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, the role of local boards of education received scrutiny. Although most observers acknowledge that school boards have an important role in maintaining involvement of local citizens and in governing local schools, some confusion regarding the specific functions of boards persists.

In response to the changing demands on school boards, a National School Boards Association task force identified four core decision-making functions that are fundamental to a school system's accountability:

  1. The establishment of a long-term vision for the school system.
  2. The establishment and maintenance of a basic organizational structure for the school system, including employment of a superintendent, adoption of an annual budget, adoption of governance policies, and creation of a climate that promotes excellence.
  3. The establishment of systems and processes to ensure accountability to the community, including fiscal accountability, accountability for programs and student outcomes, staff accountability, and collective bargaining.
  4. Advocacy on behalf of children in public education at the community, state, and national levels.

Training Activities

According to one study, the most common type of activities for training were annual conventions, orientations for new members, regional meetings, board president training sessions, and some summer and winter conferences. Other activities include the reading of appropriate literature, discussions of important issues, visiting schools, and board self-evaluations.

In order to encourage continuing education and training, state associations utilized awards for board members who completed extensive training. The more hours earned in a continuing education, the higher the award to the board member. Further, state school board associations select a "school board of the year" composed of members from the state who have demonstrated leadership including commitment to continuing education.

Superintendents play an important role in training of school board members. They can supply members with position papers, provide members with options and best practice research, conduct special briefing sessions on key issues, and model continuing improvement in the area of professional development.

School board education requires balancing issues of structure such as board–superintendent relations and education law with issues of student achievement and accountability that are part of the national agenda in the early twenty-first century.


DYKES, ARCHIE R. 1965. School Board and Superintendent: Their Effective Working Relationships. Danville, IL: Interstate.

EDUCATION COMMISSION OF THE STATES. 2001. "State Takeovers and Reconstitutions." Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States.

GEMBERLING, KATHERYN; SMITH, CARL W.; and VILLANI, JOSEPH S. 2000. The Keywork of School Boards Guidebook. Alexandria, VA: National School Boards Association.

GRADY, MARILYN, and KRUMM, BERNITA. 1998. "Learning to Serve: The State of School Board Member Training." American School Board Journal 185:36–43.

KIRST, MICHAEL, and BULKLEY, KATRINA. 2000. "'New, Improved' Mayors Take Over City Schools." Phi Delta Kappan 81:538–546.

MARLOWE, JOHN. 1997. "All on Board: Grooming Citizens for School Board Service." American School Board Journal 184:46.

MOREHOUSE, WILLIAM. 2001. "Training for My Board Colleagues? You Bet." School Administrator 58:68–70.

NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS. 2000. Education and Statistics Quarterly. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education.

NATIONAL SCHOOL BOARDS ASSOCIATION. 1996. Becoming a Better Board Member, 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA: National School Boards Association.

NATIONAL SCHOOL BOARDS ASSOCIATION. 2000. Resolutions, Beliefs and Policies, Constitution and Bylaws. Alexandria: VA: National School Boards Association.


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