How student voices reach school boards

by Jeff Camp | December 12, 2022 | 1 Comment
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Shrouded in Fear, or Loud and Clear?

For students, a school board meeting can seem intimidating — a ritual gathering at which elected officials furrow their brows and cast parliamentary incantations from the dais, punctuated by the crack of the gavel.

How do school boards actually work, and how can student voices reach them?

At the state conference of the 2022 Ed100 Academy for Student Leaders, students had the opportunity to learn from Xilonin Cruz-Gonzalez, who had just completed her 20th year as a school board trustee in Azusa Unified School District. Xilonin is a past President of the California School Boards Association, an organization that trains and supports school board members. As Deputy Director of Californians Together, she supports immigrant and refugee students and their families.

She appeared at the conference introduced by Alvin Lee, the student host. Here are her slides. Read on for some highlights, or watch the full presentation here — it's just 20 minutes.

School districts are separate from city councils, and often bigger

“I think before the pandemic hit most people didn't even know what a school board was! When community members have a problem with their school district they often call their city council member or their mayor to complain, not really realizing that the schools are actually governed by your local school board! It’s a separate jurisdiction."

“School districts are often much larger than cities. For example, my district, Azusa Unified School District, has a budget of over 100 million dollars. Our city only has a budget of 35 million dollars. In smaller, rural areas, school districts are quite often the largest employer.”

School districts have a lot of independence

“School boards are elected by the community to represent the community… Many of our laws and requirements are driven by what happens at the State, but if the state is silent on an issue we can adopt policies of our own making."

“I'll give you one example: With my organization, Californians Together, almost over a decade ago we were advocating for this idea of a State Seal of Biliteracy. Some of you may know that it exists because you're eligible to get it on your diploma when you graduate from high school to show that you know two or more languages. We wanted to make this a state policy in the late 2000s. It got through the legislature but it was vetoed by Arnold Schwarzenegger several times. So we as an organization said ‘we're not going to let this stop us.’ School districts have the authority to do something similar within their own purview, so we went across the state and organized districts. Across the state we saw districts adopting the seal, and eventually enough districts were doing it and building momentum. We went back again to get the legislation passed at the state level — by a new governor at that point!"

Organizing across grade levels

“I never imagined that 21 years later I would still be on the school board, but one of the things that I learned very quickly is that school district change happens very slowly. For many of you who are excited about getting engaged and involved and advocating for your district, I think it's good to push. Sometimes they happen quickly but sometimes they don't, right? So think about how you organize across grade levels.”

On student representation

“If you do not have a student school board member in your district: There was legislation that now enables students to get a petition together to request it. The school board has to respond, so it's something for you to think about if you do not have a local student board member.

“There's also something called county boards of education, which generally oversee the whole county. They often don't have the same kind of interaction with students or have the same kind of students that you see in a unified or elementary high school district, but they also can have student board members."

“There is one school board in the whole state where the student board member has equal voting rights and that is the state board of education. One lucky student every year gets to serve on the state board of education.”

When do school boards meet?

"Most school boards meet either once a month or twice a month. For example, in my district we meet every first and third Tuesday at 7pm. Our meetings must all be public — we have to follow something called the Brown Act. We have to publish our agenda 72 hours before any meeting, and we can only discuss and take action on the items that are on the agenda."

Commenting at a school board meeting

“Some of you who come to public comment may feel frustrated because you’ll feel like you don't get any response. That's really because we're governed by the Brown act. We're trying to be careful to make sure that we don't start talking about our opinions and what we think about something if it's not on the agenda! This is all around making sure that when we make decisions everyone knows. We can't sneak something by the community. Even if you were to meet with a board member one-on-one there may be occasions where you feel frustrated because the board member won't say ‘Yeah, I agree with you!’ Part of that has to do with the way The Brown Act is set up.”

On hiring a Superintendent

“One of our most important pieces of action is to hire and evaluate the Superintendent. School boards only have one employee, and that is the Superintendent. The Superintendent actually runs the whole district. We just hire them!”

Why school board policies matter

“A school district policy is actually a written guideline adopted by the school board under which the school district operates. It is sort of the legislative guidelines for the district. The district will adopt policies and the superintendent is tasked with implementing them.

“The vast majority of policies are actually driven by state laws. The state will put in a new law or regulation and that will drive our policies. But as I mentioned earlier, districts do have leeway to change some of them as long as they don't contradict state policy.”

Federal requirements help student representation

“At the school site level there are committees that districts are required to have if they get ‘Title I’ dollars. They have to have a school site council representative of staff as well as parents at the elementary level. At the secondary level it also includes students. This is a good place to start getting involved in your school and understanding how the system works.

Another group is charged with helping develop a plan for how the school is going to serve English Learners. Districts may have other advisory groups. Some districts are implementing community schools. Others may have have other councils as well as maybe a wellness council."

Be clear

“I have some advice about how to advocate at the school board level. Be really clear about what you want to see. Identify what the problem is. Think about some solutions! They may be changing policies, but it may just be changing practices. Based on that you can figure out ‘is this really something that I need to ask the school board to change or is it maybe something that we can do at our school site?’”

Work together and persist

“Make sure that you're organizing with other people. It makes it more powerful, but it also just helps you and it sustains your movement — because it's really hard to advocate by yourself.

Also, consider reaching out to individual board members to talk about your issues. I'm not going to promise you that every board member is going to say “yes I want to meet with you”. Make sure that you're patient and persistent. I've been on my school board for 21 years. You may start something right now while you're in high school and it doesn't happen during your years. Maybe it'll happen a couple years later if you lay the strong foundation to make sure that people continue pushing.”

How to get on the agenda

California Education Code 35145.5

“One little hint about school boards: Unlike city councils and school county governments, California allows people from the public to request agenda items on the school board agenda. You couldn't do this at a city council but you can do it in a school district. It has to be education-related. The district has the authority to decide when and how it gets on the agenda."

"If you feel like you're not really getting traction with your school board you can request to have something put on the agenda and have it be an official conversation.”

Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Ariel Locke December 14, 2022 at 2:14 pm
This is a great read! I discovered exactly what the Brown Act details.
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