A dozen questions to ask school board candidates

by Carol Kocivar | September 25, 2022 | 2 Comments
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What’s in the shell?

School board elections have traditionally been sleepy affairs. No more. Parents and political activists are now paying close attention to these local contests — for good reasons.

School boards are responsible for setting local policies that affect how our children learn to think critically and become responsible adults. And there is more…

In the Ed100 blog:
School Boards Demystified

School boards oversee the finances of one of the biggest government services in your community. They can set local policies that relate to constitutional principles such as separation of church and state, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and equal protection for all under the law. And they are a training ground for up-and-coming politicians.

What’s at stake?

Recent interest in school board elections reflects the deep political divide throughout the nation. Fueled by controversies over school closings and Covid safety requirements, some political activists see school boards as places to hatch partisan political agendas at a relatively low cost. Vastly different views on the direction of public education may be on the ballot:

  • How schools teach about racism.
  • Sex education and the rights of LBGTQ students.
  • Book bans and restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly.
  • Public money for private and religious schools.
How can we tell what candidates think? Ask these questions.

School board candidates are wooing your vote for the November election. They are attending town halls and house parties and farmers’ markets, and knocking on doors.

What should you ask these candidates?

In this post you’ll find a dozen sample questions that can help you, with links to Ed100 lessons and blog posts to help you shine. Beneath each question you’ll find guidance to evaluate whether candidates answer with substance or flim-flam.

1) Why are you running for school board, and what are your qualifications?

The candidate should not stumble on this one. It’s the most frequently asked question, and probably will be part of their basic stump speech!

  • Does the candidate talk about experience serving on boards that make budget and policy decisions?
  • Is the candidate a parent? If so, do the answers reflect more than a personal perspective?
  • Does the candidate volunteer in schools or work with students? This can give you important insight on commitment.
  • Has the candidate participated in past board meetings?
  • Does the candidate share stories that display a passion for educating children?
  • Can you tell whether the candidate is committed to a strong public education system or is this a stepping stone for higher elective office? (It can be both. It is good to have state and national legislators with a strong understanding of education issues.)

2) What are the top needs of your school district?

The answer to this question will tell you a lot about how prepared the candidate is to serve on the school board.

Ed100 Lesson 7.3
School Districts

  • Is the answer tailored to the needs of your school district, or does it reflect a personal political philosophy?
  • How did the candidate determine these top needs? From your perspective, are these the most important needs?
  • Does the candidate refer to school data and listen to other parents to understand their concerns?
  • Does the candidate have any special experience or insight into these issues?

3) What are your budget priorities?

This answer can help you understand whether the candidate understands that a school budget should align with the needs of students.

  • Does the candidate refer to the findings and budget recommendations in the district’s three-year plan, known as the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP)?
  • How does the candidate talk about input from educators, community, and parents?
  • Does the candidate talk about priorities, or only about expanding programs?
  • How does the candidate talk about ongoing budget obligations such as salaries, pensions, special education costs and reserves? (If there is no discussion of financial constraints, it may mean the candidate doesn’t have a real grip on the realities of funding.)

4) How will you address the different needs of all students?

The answer can be an eye-opener.

  • How does the candidate talk about the needs of diverse student groups, such as English language learners, children with special education needs, low income students, and those of different ethnicities?
  • What does the candidate say about race and gender equity?
  • How does the candidate talk about the purpose of school, and how the college and career goals of students may vary?
  • What does the candidate say about the needs of students who show high potential?

5) What is your view of school choice?

We’ve included some questions that delve into a candidate’s political philosophy. School choice is one of them.

Ed100 Lesson 5.2
School Choice

  • Does the candidate talk about choices within traditional public school districts?
  • What does the candidate say about public charter schools?
  • Does the candidate favor public funding for private and religious schools?
  • Does the candidate favor tax credits or vouchers to pay for private and religious school choice?

6) What are the literacy challenges students face, and how would you address them?

The answer will let you know if the candidate understands California’s reading crisis. Does the candidate:

In the Ed100 blog:
Too many kids can’t read

  • Know how well students are performing by grade and demographics?
  • Support early screening for all students for risk of dyslexia?
  • Talk about providing educators with the most up to date training on how to teach reading?
  • Understand the importance of learning to read by third grade?

7) What are your views on math instruction, particularly in middle school and high school?

This will give you a better understanding of how much the candidate knows about student performance and math sequences.

  • Can the candidate tell you the percentage of middle school students who are ready for high school math?
  • Is the candidate familiar with the math courses that are required for high school graduation and advancement to college?
  • What does the candidate say about accelerated classes in middle school?
  • Does the candidate have an opinion about the proposed new state math frameworks?

8) What are your views on how social studies and language arts are taught in our schools?

This will quickly disclose a candidate’s political philosophy. Are hot button issues discussed specifically or avoided with generalities?

  • Would the candidate ban or restrict access to books in response to parent objections?
  • Does critical race theory come up? Does the candidate know what it is?
  • What does the candidate say regarding teaching about civics and civil rights? Does the candidate support freedom of speech and assembly in schools? How about the right to bear arms, or privacy rights?
  • What does the candidate think about teaching ethnic studies and civics education?

9) What are your views on educator salaries and benefits?

This question will let you know if the candidate is aware of the life conditions of educators, and how they compare with similarly educated college graduates.

  • Does the candidate know how salaries and benefits are structured and negotiated with unions?
  • Is the candidate aware of the significance of pensions in educators’ total compensation?
  • Does the candidate understand where teacher shortages are most significant?
  • How does the candidate place educator salaries and benefits in the context of the district budget?
  • Does the candidate know the base salaries of teachers and paraprofessionals in your district?

10) Can you explain where the money to fund our schools comes from?

This is a softball question for knowledgeable school board candidates.

Ed100 Lesson 8.3:
Who Pays for California’s public schools?

However, it will really open your eyes if the candidate has no idea about what percent comes from local taxes, what percent comes from the state and what percent and kinds of funding comes from the federal government.

  • Does the candidate show knowledge of Prop. 98, the state's minimum funding guarantee, or Prop. 13, which limits property taxes?
  • Does the candidate mention local parcel taxes or other approaches to raise money?

11) What role should the community play in supporting the education of children?

This question gives a candidate the opportunity to reveal the depth of their commitment to children. It can also reveal a political philosophy.

  • Does the candidate talk practically about the role of parents?
  • Is the candidate interested in connecting community services with schools (e.g. libraries, sports, art, music, anti-poverty and social services, museums, housing?)
  • Does the candidate talk about more than just the school day? Schools have roles to play after school, in the summer, and on weekends and holidays.
  • Does the candidate mention coordination with preschools, or the role of the community in ensuring attendance?

12) What will you do to ensure that all children get a full arts education?

The way the candidate answers this question can show whether they view the arts as an essential ingredient of a quality education, or as more of an afterthought.

  • Does the candidate talk about arts education as a way to make schools effective?
  • Does the candidate mention the arts in connection with social-emotional learning?
  • Is the candidate aware that arts education is required under California law and that many school districts fail to provide it?

A final note:

Serving on a school board is one of the most important ways to support your community. It is also a difficult elected position. As you ask these questions, remember the lessons we learned in kindergarten: say “thank you”, treat people with respect, listen, don’t yell, apologize if you hurt someone’s feelings, and remember that everyone benefits from a nap.

Questions & Comments

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user avatar
pscripter September 27, 2022 at 12:34 pm
Very timely - will be sharing these at a local advocacy training this week.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar September 27, 2022 at 12:43 pm
Love to hear this! Thanks Patty.
user avatar
Jo Loss September 27, 2022 at 3:04 am
Hi,
These are great questions. Can we add a link to these in our upcoming LWV Voter?
user avatar
Carol Kocivar September 27, 2022 at 9:31 am
Glad they are helpful! Of course you may add a link. We hope others also share these.
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