Masks in schools, Critical Race Theory, social distancing, and vaccinations are among the many polarizing issues impacting public schools.
As a K-12 educational leader, I will often receive questions from parents and community members asking: how can my voice be heard? With schools getting ready to open for the 2021-22 school year, it is important to empower others to speak out about the big decisions that are being made about our children. In order to do that, this article seeks to offer guidance about working with local school boards and the best communication methods to effect change.
School board members – often referred to as the Board of Trustees – are elected officials who physically reside within the boundaries of the district that they represent. Often, board members represent a specific “neighborhood” or zone within their district. While county offices of education, state departments of education, and the federal government regulate laws, funding, and certain mandates, each school district is independently governed by its school board.
The school board meeting is where all of the action happens. Most meetings will begin with a closed session where the board members vote on confidential matters such as the termination of an employee or a lawsuit settlement. Meetings then move to open sessions, which as the name implies, are open to the community.
This is a key point: school board meetings are not just for the parents and employees of a school district but also for residents and community members who live in that district (or even outside of the district). Schools can influence property values, traffic, and most importantly, the future generation of our great nation.
In my experience, PUBLIC COMMENTS made during a school board meeting are the best way for parents and community members to address their concerns in a way that will result in action. Sure, board members receive emails all of the time, and their contact information can easily be found on any school district’s website. In many cases, however, these emails get routed back to the employee who can best address the concern. For example, if a parent emails a board member and complains about their child’s math placement test score, the email will likely go to the principal or someone in the Educational Services department. Concerns involving day-to-day situations such as homework, a bullying incident, or a student’s academic needs are best left to the teacher or principal to first try and find a solution.
Board member involvement is more meaningful when issues cannot be resolved by school site or district personnel along with broader issues that impact an entire school district, such as what is done when a child refuses to wear a mask at school.
All school districts have a policy and time allocated at every school board meeting for public comments. Nevertheless, the actual process of making a comment can vary from district to district. For example, some districts require a very simple piece of paper to be completed at the beginning of the school board meeting indicating the name of the person who will be making the comment. Whatever the process, it can usually be found on a district’s website or by calling the district office.
During the height of the pandemic and social distancing, it was not uncommon for districts to require all comments to be submitted electronically, in advance of the meeting, and then read aloud (by an employee) during the meeting. Now, most school boards are back to meeting in person, and public comments are made in the traditional way.
All of this information begs the question, if you are making a public comment, what do you need to know? Public comments usually have a time limit such as a three to five-minute maximum. Therefore, some people find it helpful to write out what they want to say. In some instances, one parent or community member will make a comment on behalf of a larger group (such as the 1st-grade parents at Noname School). At other times, several individuals will band together and make multiple comments about the same topic, which communicates the seriousness of the concern to the board. School boards also follow rules of decorum and decency, so comments that use vulgar language or involve name-calling are not tolerated. It should also be noted that many school districts record their school board meetings and broadcast them on platforms such as YouTube.
Due to the agenda requirements, the school board is usually not able to respond to public comments in the moment. They do, however, investigate the issues brought forth, and I have seen many instances where changes have been made as a result of public comments.
School board meetings are a great way to become involved in civics and local government. Watch a school board meeting online, attend in person, and speak out on behalf of our children and community. Your voice matters, and it needs to be heard.