Throughout North Carolina, every local school board is wrestling with how to manage plans for reopening schools trying to balance what resources they have with the needs of communities while anticipating how this pandemic will play out.
With just over a month until that August 17th “opening day” that was stipulated earlier in the summer by the state, school boards are having to rush to give answers to questions that are fueled by more than logic but also partisan-fueled emotions.
Simply put, how schools are reopened and managed this fall will have a primary effect on how the economy can be “opened” up.
I do not envy anyone having to fulfill the role of the local school board official. When those elected servants campaigned to be on the local BOE, navigating a pandemic probably did not weigh into possible obstacles. I have been teaching for over 22 years; I never thought I would have to go through what happened last school year starting in March.
But I am again assured that one of the most important offices for which anyone can place a vote is for the local school board, and 2020 is another big year for many local school board elections.
Communities are learning in a rather serious manner that each election for each seat on each local school board is of vital importance.
Of all the 2018 primary political signs that were spread throughout the city where I reside, at least three of five dealt with the local school board elections.
This was not an anomaly. I cannot remember a time in an election cycle in which the majority of roadside political signs of local and state office did not refer to the school board elections. Those elections are that important because so much is at stake.
2020 has been a big lesson on how much really is at stake.
The largest part of a state’s budget tends to be toward public education. A major part of a school board’s (city or county) identity is how it helps students achieve within what resources and funds are available. In North Carolina, where a state general assembly tends to pass more fiscal responsibility to LEA’s (think class size mandate), a school board’s calling to help all students achieve must be met by those who truly understand what best helps schools and students.
2020 is exposing that raw reality.
No wonder school board elections are so important.
At the heart of a school board’s responsibilities are supporting a selected superintendent, guiding the creation of policies and curriculum, making sure there are adequate facilities, and seeing that budgetary needs are met.
Here in 2020, the fight to have the proper facilities, resources, and budgetary supports is even more difficult.
That means understanding what students, teachers, and support staff need. That means understanding how schools operate and how they are affected by mandates and laws that come from Raleigh and how Raleigh’s actions in this pandemic have affected state services. And when policies that are handed down from the state that may not treat the local system favorably, then the school board must confront those in Raleigh and help fight for what is best for the local students.
Right now the biggest obstacle in handling how we reopen schools is the North Carolina General Assembly.
Consider that before we had a pandemic we had a per-pupil expenditure rate that was lower when adjusted for inflation than before the Great Recession. Consider that before we had a pandemic we had a lack of textbook funds and overcrowded buildings and state mandates for testing that took many school days away from instruction. Consider that before we had a pandemic we had the funding of unproven reforms like an Innovative School District and vouchers. Consider that before we had a pandemic we had the growth of unregulated charter schools.
All of that brings to light what might be one of the most important jobs that a school board must undertake: it must be willing to challenge the state in an explicit and overt manner on matters that directly affect their local schools.
In a state where almost 1 in 4 students lives in poverty and where Medicaid was not extended to those who relied on such services, schools are drastically affected as students who walk into schools bring in their life challenges. If student achievement is a primary responsibility of a school board, whatever stands in the way of students being able to achieve becomes an issue that a school board must confront.
So, is the person whose name is on a political sign for school board candidacy willing to fight for our schools even if it means confronting Raleigh’s policies and its reactions to the pandemic?
That might be the first question I might ask of any candidate for local school board – the first of many.