Spotlight on school boards: Why they matter, what they do, and how to get involved

A school is the heart of its community: preparing its citizens for the future, providing the town a sense of identity, and bringing people together. In turn, communities provide support to their schools – and not just in the form of finances.

New Hampshire is a state that prides itself on local control. Community members get together each year to vote on school budgets and other matters. They also elect a body of representatives who will make important decisions about how the school is run: the school board. 

So what exactly does a school board do? Why does it matter? How do board members get elected? And what does it take to serve effectively on a board?

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Let’s start with the basics: School boards are non-partisan, elected bodies who set school district policy, develop budgets, conduct strategic planning, and govern other key aspects of district operations. There are roughly 900 school board members statewide, and about a third of their seats are up for election each year. Most towns hold their school board elections in mid-March, and most cities hold them in November.

“People serve on school boards for a variety of reasons,” said Barrett Christina, Executive Director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association. “Many of them are parents of kids in the school. They do so because they want to be involved with their kids’ school. They think they can be a good voice for students. Conversely, a lot of people run because they think they have some skills or trade-in their personal life that they think can translate well to school board service. Maybe they’ve been on a non-profit board before, somebody who has a background in finance or money and feels that they can provide their district with some budgeting expertise. Sometimes it will be a former educator or retired educator or perhaps the spouse of an educator.”

Or, sometimes, a particular issue compels someone to get involved.

“I remember 10 years ago a lot of districts still only had half-day kindergarten,” Christina said. “So you’d get a group of moms who would run for school board, and their platform was full-day kindergarten.”

A sense of civic responsibility tends to cut across these motives.

“I really liked to be civically involved, civically engaged, and I think after graduating and going to college I felt like something was missing,” said Jonathan Weinberg, who was elected to the Concord School Board in 2020, just a year and a half after graduating from Concord High School.  “No matter what I was doing on my college campus, it seemed like I wanted to try and support people more, so I decided to come back and try and find a way to motivate other people to get more involved, and I thought going on the school board would be one way to do that.”

The same was true for Norm Goupil, who joined the Hopkinton School Board in 2020. 

I’ve always been part of the community in some capacity, mostly with being a coach,” Goupil said. “For me, giving back to the community is a priority.”

Of course, no matter how compelling a person’s reason for serving on their local school board, they can’t do it without first getting elected. Here’s how that works.

First, make sure you’re eligible. The only legal qualifications are that you’re a registered voter within your district and that you’re not a salaried employee of the school district or SAU. 

Next, get the paperwork from your town or city clerk’s office, fill it out, and file it during the appropriate filing period — late January for towns and early September for cities. In some municipalities you’ll have to pay a small fee. 

“It’s not always easy information to find so I would recommend anybody contact your local school superintendent to put you in touch with the proper person,” Christina said.

Once you’ve filed your paperwork, it’s time to hit the campaign trail. 

“Whether we’re talking about running for president of the United States or your local school board, the methods seem to be the same: social media, signs, and knocking on doors,” Christina said.

What’s not required is a sophisticated fundraising campaign. Most candidates pay out of their own pockets or run small-scale fundraisers, and while some have slick materials and fancy websites, others do just fine with a more homespun approach. Weinberg, for example, did a lot of campaigning by word of mouth and simply making himself visible at public places. He even started out with handmade lawn signs. 

“I was very fortunate to have very generous wonderful people in my life who made them for me before I had the monetary capacity to buy some, which was amazing,” Weinberg said. “But also, even after I had official signs, I kind of really liked the wholesome, homemade signs. I think it’s very creative and also more down-to-earth.”

It’s worth noting that historically many school board races are uncontested — but that doesn’t mean you should neglect campaigning. The campaigning period is an excellent time to hear what’s on people’s minds and share your vision with constituents, setting the stage for an effective term.

So, let’s say you get elected. Now what?

Well, for one thing, be prepared to give up a fair amount of free time.

“It can be extensive, and I think it’s more time than people often realize before they get on the board,” Christina said. “You may be in meetings 12 to 15 hours a month, prep times is going to be another five or 10 hours a month, and then there are sort of the ancillary responsibilities as well, about responding to constituents and answering emails, having phone calls with your superintendent and your central office staff about questions that have come up, and the board may need to consult with the superintendent about certain things at certain times. You could easily be looking at five, 10 hours a week, 30, 40, 50 hours a month, depending on the size and scope of your school board and how much you want to get involved.”

And what, exactly, will you be doing during that time? School boards have several key responsibilities, all related to governance, not daily operations. One biggie is setting policy: for the board itself, for school administration, facilities, curriculum and assessments, teacher responsibilities, behavior expectations for students, and more. 

“It’s really all the functions of the school, and how some people would describe the separation is, the board is the policy and the superintendent is the one who administers the policy,” Weinberg said. “One of the policies that we just created this year was for transgender and gender non-conforming students, and I would just say this policy is one example of many policies that the school board works on to make the schools function and work to create an inclusive atmosphere.”

School boards also spend a lot of time developing the district budgets that voters will approve (or reject) on town meeting day, as well as overseeing the current operating budget, even if the district has a separate budget committee. Budget development can be a cumbersome process, especially in years when voters send you back to the drawing board to make cuts. 

Additionally, school boards are responsible for hiring and evaluating their superintendent, maintaining collective bargaining agreements with teacher and support staff unions, and setting short- and long-term educational goals for the district. 

Finally, school boards must communicate with the public. 

“There are aspects beyond the legal requirements under right-to-know laws and laws for posting minutes, etc.,” Christina said. “People want to feel heard and people want communication from their school district. … What I tell boards is it’s easier than it ever has been to communicate with our constituents. Everybody has a smartphone on them, and the first thing that people do when they wake up is grab their smartphone.” 

We’d be remiss not to mention here that, in the past several months, many school boards have been taking heat from their constituents. Anyone joining a board for the first time should know that communicating with the public can, at times, be stressful. And that’s true even during so-called normal times. School performance and property taxes are perennially hot-button issues.

Regular school board meetings include public comment periods, but school board members should make sure constituents have other avenues — both digital and in-person — for asking questions and voicing concerns. 

On a sunny Saturday last summer, I caught up with Weinberg at the Concord Farmers Market. Last year, the Concord School Board decided to set up a table outside the market as a way of making itself more accessible to the public during a difficult year. 

“A lot of people didn’t even know what the school board is and still don’t really understand the functions,” Weinberg said. “We wanted to make sure to try to bridge that gap between the school board and the community, so people could understand who we are as humans and find another way of addressing grievances or asking questions than solely in a school board formal meeting format.”

Over time, the weekly presence has made a difference.

“I think there is a benefit to these conversations in the work in that we just get to hear more and learn more,” Weinberg said. “Oftentimes, or sometimes, learn about more behind the scenes – people that might feel uncomfortable coming to board meetings can have this as a more, not so much anonymous, but more close and relational point of communication…From what I’ve encountered I think a lot of community members have found this outlet helpful as an additional area to ask questions.”

Two members of the Hopkinton School Board undertook a similar initiative in 2020, when their district was struggling to pass a budget. They held regular office hours (outdoors in the town gazebo, due to the pandemic), giving people a chance to meet with them one-on-one. 

“Of course you can’t make everyone happy, but just by giving someone an ear, I think goes a long way,” Goupil said. “When you have that one-on-one relationship, it really holds a lot of value.”

In fact, building relationships may be one of the most important tasks a school board member — especially a new one — undertakes, whether it’s with the public, fellow board members, or school administration.

“Call your superintendent and arrange for a time to get a cup of coffee together,” Christina said. “Have a cup of coffee and talk about why you ran for school board, what your priorities are, what you bring to the table, what initiatives you’re going to be looking at and then listen and engage the superintendent as to how that may be done.”

And above all, be a good listener.

“Sit and listen as often as you can until you get your feet wet,” Christina said. “When you’re sitting on the other side of the table, it’s a very different dynamic.”

View the other resources in our toolkit:

“Different School, Different World: An Introduction to School Funding in NH”

Student Voice Toolkit

public schools: a brief and offbeat history