School board membership 101: How to run & get elected
Almost every public school district is governed by a school board consisting of five to 7 members on average — though they can range based on district size from 3 to 25. These board members represent the community and champion the student experience within the local district. Before they can tackle critical issues, one milestone comes first: running for a school board.
School board members are citizens elected by their community to make decisions about the local public school system based on community expectations and goals and what students need to succeed. Though serving as a school board member can be rewarding, it’s not for everyone. There are many different factors to consider in becoming a school board member, from the cost of campaigning to the commitment it takes to be an effective board member.
Here are things to consider before running for a school board.
Why Run for School Board Membership?
Serving as a school board member requires significant time and commitment. School board roles and responsibilities are vast, and many demand each member’s undivided attention.
Former educators and parents may seem like obvious choices for school board membership, but typically anyone who resides in the district and is of voting age may be eligible. Before running for a school board, prospective members should ask themselves:
- Do you have a goal to improve student achievement and opportunities?
- Can you work well with a team?
- Are you ready to commit to the responsibility of public office?
Regardless of each member’s motivations behind running for a school board, their passion must be genuine since it’ll take a lot of time and attention to serve on a school board.
Who Is Eligible to Run for School Boards?
To be a school board member, district residents must meet specific qualifications. School board requirements vary between states and districts — some districts, for example, have term limits, while some don’t. Candidates for school board membership should research their state’s school board association to see the complete list of qualifications, as most associations list the requirements for their state.
A school board candidate may be asked to meet the following requirements.
5 School Board Member Qualifications
Before running for a school board, individuals must meet the following qualifications. However, qualifications may vary from district to district, so candidates should check local and state regulations.
The five typical qualifications for school board are:
- Be 18 years of age at the start of the term.
- Be a resident of the district that the individual is running to represent.
- Be a US citizen.
- Be free of felony convictions.
- Mentally capable to serve (not to have been determined mentally incapacitated by a court of law).
How Often Are School Board Elections?
School board elections generally happen every year. However, not all school boards will have an election every year if there are no challenges to board seats. Vacancies can happen any time a school board member’s term ends (terms typically last three to four years) or if a board member has to resign mid-term. Elections can happen at any time throughout the year but are typically in May or November with the term beginning shortly after the election.
How Much Does It Cost to Run for School Boards?
It can cost more to run for a school board than most district residents probably think. While it is possible to run for very little money, there can be a lot of money in school board elections. In Denver, Colorado, for example, candidates collectively spent more than $1.6 million in their 2021 election. But this money may not come directly out of the candidates’ pockets. Individuals, teachers’ unions and even non-profits can contribute to the campaigns of candidates who will support their interests, which drastically increases campaign spending. Be sure to review election spending laws before launching a campaign since some districts already have limits in place while others are seriously considering them.
How to Run for a School Board (With 7 Steps)
School board members are usually selected by a public vote in alignment with school district policy, typically every three to four years. School boards can contain between three and twenty-five members who are either elected by a majority or plurality voting system. In the former, a candidate has to receive more than 50% of the vote to win. In the latter, the candidate with the highest number of votes receives school board membership.
Running for a school board is a political campaign. Candidates can use the following steps to get started.
1. Determine Eligibility
Before filing paperwork or starting a campaign, school board candidates should first verify their eligibility. To be eligible, candidates must meet basic requirements, typically including being at least 18 years of age and a registered voter, living within the district, and not being a convicted felon or a district employee at the start of the term.
Eligibility requirements vary by state, so candidates should make sure that they meet all the qualifications for the district in which they plan to run.
2. Choose a Geographic Area
Districts can be divided into different zones. Candidates can run to represent a specific zone, or they can run at large, which means they’ll represent the entire community. Once they’ve verified that they’re eligible to run, candidates should choose which part of their community they’ll represent while on the board. This can impact not only what issues the candidate will prioritize but also who will vote on their school board membership.
3. Establish Reasons for Running
Candidates need to be able to explain why they’re running for the school board. These should connect with the voters of the geographic area the candidate is representing, but they should also be achievable. Successful candidates run on their higher-level vision for the district, not on specific issues, like teacher salaries, that might ultimately be out of their reach.
4. File to Run for School Board
How to file to run for school board varies by state, but regardless of where they live, candidates should plan on filling out paperwork and getting it notarized. Each document must be filled out according to district timelines and processes. Candidates should get in touch with their local election offices and their local school district to ensure they comply with deadlines.
Most school districts require that candidates at least file the following:
- Official Declaration of Candidacy: This form declares that the candidate is running for a school district. It usually must be filled out at a particular place at a specific time and may even need to be notarized.
- Financial Disclosure: This form declares any potential conflicts of interest pursuant to the state’s ethics laws. Ultimately, this disclosure indicates a campaign treasurer and certifies that the candidate will publicly identify all donations.
- Clean Criminal History: Candidates must present either a criminal history record or an affidavit stating that they have a clean criminal background.
- Petition: Not all states require a nominating petition. But in those that do, candidates must present their petition with sufficient signatures.
Once candidates have submitted their paperwork, it’s officially campaign time. The first round of the campaign will be for their party’s primary if the state has primary elections, typically in the spring of the election year. If they win their primary, the candidate will then need to campaign through the general election in November.
School board campaign ideas may vary from candidate to candidate, but most candidates create campaign slogans and messaging, develop a website, print signs and flyers and make public appearances — plus the fundraising it takes to keep all these efforts afloat.
6. Primary Election
In very few states, candidates for a school board have to choose a political party when they file their declaration. The primary election is then against candidates running under that same party. In primary elections, candidates often have more similar goals since they usually align with that party’s ideals. The number of candidates in each election has also grown in recent years, so candidates are likely running against several other qualified district residents.
Candidates need to be careful about differentiating themselves from the rest of the field, whether that’s simply coming up with a unique slogan or communicating about plans or ideas the other candidates simply don’t cover.
7. General Election
Most school board elections have a single election, the general election. Unless there has been a primary election, there will likely be a field of candidates. Some school districts have zones or places, and some run in an at-large election, generally elected by voters in the entire district.
This is the time when candidates have the opportunity to share their ideas for the district. They should share their vision with voters. General elections are in November if there is a primary; many states have local elections in May. Consult your school district website for election information, cycles and key dates. Most school board members elected in November take office in January. Again, the district will have the information about when the term begins, but it is generally after a meeting to canvass election results.
Once candidates have gained a school board membership seat, it may seem like the last word on how to become a school board member. However, most states have laws in place leading up to when the new school board member officially takes office.
Elected board members are required to complete a certificate of election, which outlines the rights and privileges of holding office. Then, new board members will be required to take an oath to be sworn into office.
These processes are crucial to maintaining good governance procedures for school boards and other government bodies. After board members have been sworn into their new roles, they can begin to assume their duties and learn about their new positions. The board will restructure board officer positions after the election.
This is where the real work begins! An effective school board member is an individual who is willing to take advantage of opportunities for growth and development (through board training, encouraging relationships, and utilizing new technology) that support accomplishing district goals toward student success.
Use Technology to Increase Board Effectiveness
Leveraging Community by Diligent, board members can access vital documents and materials related to board responsibilities and effectiveness. Meeting agendas, past meeting minutes, policy manuals, strategic plans, goal information, and orientation or training resources are all significant materials related to board functions.
School board members should have the capability of gaining access to these documents from any device or location securely. Leveraging Community, school board members can easily access all of these vital materials.
This level of accessibility allows administrators to share materials to make educated, timely decisions and practice good governance for the betterment of the district. These features support an influential board, leading to greater student achievement.
Winning a school board seat is an exciting and satisfying moment after the challenge of running for school board. It’s also an opportunity to make real changes and improvements to student achievement. Board members may leverage resources and technology to do their best work to accomplish goals, but the most important thing is that school board members are prepared to serve.
If they’re ready, willing and able to put in the time and energy to improve student experiences, they’re ready for school board membership. Technology can make their membership easier, but ultimately successful school boards and their members all start with a vision for a better, more successful district.