School board members make decisions on challenging situations like book bans, handle community concerns around education, and manage school-related funds.
For many localities in Virginia, school board seats will be up for grabs this fall. That means you’ll be seeing a slew of candidates announce their bids for your vote in the coming months, if they haven’t started popping up already.
When you go to vote for a school board official, be sure to elect the candidate who aligns most with your values.
As Tiffany Van Der Hyde, executive director of We The People For Education, noted in a recent conversation with Dogwood about the importance of school board elections, “It’s their own backyard, it’s their own neighborhood school, school board races, it’s who’s at the end of your ballot.”
Sarah Gross, president of the board of We The People For Education, also expressed the importance of getting involved in the election process.
“For parents, the school board race is typically the most accessible for [them] to get effectively engaged around. The people who are running are your neighbors, and the people who should be running are your neighbors,” Gross said. “So continuing to have thoughtful, open minded conversations with you know, who’s on the playground with you, or who’s in the grocery line with you.”
School board members are the individuals that will be representing your voice at one of the most local of levels. They’re also the folks who make decisions in challenging school situations, handle community concerns around education, and manage school-related funds.
You’ve probably heard plenty lately about book bans in school classrooms and libraries. Many of those conversations—and ultimately decisions—come from members of the local school board.
A controversy erupted in Loudoun County last year ahead of the locality’s school board race. Candidate Nick Gothard raised concerns about the incumbent member, Andrew Hoyler, voting to remove a book from the division’s libraries. Hoyler responded that the book he voted to ban received removal support on a bipartisan basis. Ultimately, neither individual won the school board seat; they lost to candidate Tiffany Polifko.
In January, the Madison County School Board voted to ban nearly two dozen titles from the local high school library. According to both The MadRapp Reporter and Bookstr, the 21 books came from a list of novels that Focus on the Family, a national ultra-conservative organization, deemed “unacceptable.” Three titles also popped up on the American Library Association’s 10 Most Challenged Books list between 2019 and 2021.
If you’ve ever sat through a school board meeting without being employed by the school system, chances are you were there to witness a student or staff member receiving a special honor—or you were there to make your voice heard about an issue that you felt passionate about.
School boards across the commonwealth open their meetings to public comment. Sometimes, parents, teachers, students, and caregivers come with positive remarks. However, many use the opportunity to express concerns while school board members listen to their observations.
While many school boards decline to speak to public comments, sometimes those one-sided conversations turn into local action. In December 2021, Richmond Public Schools (RPS) became the first division in Virginia to adopt a collective bargaining resolution for teachers. That decision came after more than an hour of public comment on the issue.
Other times, school boards choose to remain silent. That’s what happened in 2021 when Pittsylvania County Public Schools teachers came together at the first school board meeting of the calendar year to push for changes in the division.
During the meeting, a local teacher of 25 years called the climate against teachers toxic, exhausting, and unacceptable. Another pled for transparency about COVID exposure. A third raised concerns about COVID positivity numbers and their relation to in-person or virtual learning options.
By the end of the meeting, the local school board didn’t make any alterations based off of the concerns its employees raised.
Finances are a big responsibility that local school boards undertake each year. While the governor’s budget ultimately determines the amount school divisions will receive, it’s up to local elected officials—including those on the school board—to properly allocate those funds.
According to the Code of Virginia: “Each school board shall manage and control the funds made available to the school board for public schools and may incur costs and expenses.”
For many school systems, budgetary talks near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic involved getting laptops in the hands of their students and staff.
In spring 2020, the school board for Prince William County Public Schools made quick action toward equipping the division. In March, Babur Lateef, the local school board chairman, requested $5 million in emergency funding from the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. The ask was part of a larger $10 million plan to equip all high school students with a device to facilitate at-home learning, with the school division offering to cover the remaining funds.
Ahead of the fall 2020 semester, Brian Landers, the director for technology at Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools, went to the school board with a request for replacement laptops for students and staff, as well as insurance and extended services. The request came a month after the board backed a $1.7 million technology investment, paid for by CARES Act funding.
School board members play a critical role in representing the voice of the community at the local level and making decisions that affect students, teachers, and staff in their divisions.
“[It’s important to ensure] that parents have an understanding that their candidates are very accessible to them because they’re part of their community,” Gross said. “It’s very easy to have a conversation with a neighbor who’s running for school board to determine if they are going to effectively serve you and your family and having an understanding of what they stand for.”