School Board Politics Neither Heated Nor Boring, Survey Shows

By: - May 15, 2002 12:00 am

Some people hear “school board” and think of controversy, bond issues and politicians with loftier aspirations. But an extensive survey of the nation’s local school boards shows that few boards are riven by conflict.

The survey, which was conducted by the National School Boards Association (NSBA), an organization that represents school boards in Washington, DC, shows that a majority of board members are typical citizens who describe themselves as professionals, politically moderate, and serve an average of six years.

“The evidence suggests that a significant majority of school board members have no further political aspirations,” said education scholar and author Frederick Hess. Hess surveyed 2000 of the nation’s 15,000 school boards in an effort to understand who is choosing to run our schools and why they get involved in governing the education of American children.

School Boards at the Dawn of the 21st Century: Conditions and Challenges of District Governance finds that the nation’s largest school districts, those with 25,000 students or more, are more political, pay more attention to interest groups, and have more contested and costly campaigns than other school districts.

In the rest of the nation’s school districts, many races go uncontested and cost candidates less than $900 to run. But the combative image prevails because 15 percent of the nation’s districts have competitive races that cost up to $5,000 and attract political hopefuls. Contested races are more apt to produce politicians since candidates have to build constituencies and raise funds, Hess says.

Large districts are also more likely to find politics infiltrating decision-making than the smaller districts, according to the author. But Hess says that school board politics aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Large districts have more severe challenges and they have to make tougher decisions. One of the ways to get hard decisions made in a democratic society is to let folks bang out (their disagreements),” Hess said at a Washington press conference.

The survey was not random. Instead, researchers made an effort to target the boards they questioned because it was the only way to get a good picture of school boards in both large and small districts. Out of the 2000 surveys sent out, 41 percent of the school board representatives responded. There is a 4 percent margin of error, Hess said.

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