School Board Election and Budget Votes: Get Out to Vote

On Tuesday, May 17th elections will take place across New York State, no, not for governor, Congress or the state legislature, for local school boards. School board elections are the very essence of democracy, no political parties, no TV ads, your neighbors running for an unpaid job with lots of responsibility and the potential for lots of conflict.

Local school boards have roots deep in the philosophical soil of our nation.

This preference for local control of education dovetailed with the broader ethos of the American Revolution and the Founders’ distrust of distant, centralized authority. Education was left out of the Constitution; in the 10th Amendment, it is one of the unnamed powers reserved for the states, which in turn passed it on to local communities. Eventually the United States would have 130,000 school districts, most of them served by a one-room school. These little red schoolhouses, funded primarily through local property taxes, became the iconic symbols of democratic American learning.

And, are a relic of the past, European nations, with much higher levels of achievement than our schools all have national school systems with national curriculum and national funding while we still fund schools primarily through local property taxes set in a political process.  According to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) the United States lags far behind other nations in virtually every educational category.

Every few year pundits demean local school boards, some argue to move to a European model, See First, Kill All the School Boards here; Louis Gerstner, former CEO of IBM argues to abolish local school boards and Diane Ravitch responds, read here and last week in Education Next, Local Elected School Boards are Failing, Read here.

Local school boards aren’t going anywhere; they are passionately supported across the political spectrum.

There are 15,000 school districts across the nation and 700 school districts in New York State, in a way an example of Athenian democracy.  Any resident can attend monthly school board meetings, vote to select board members, vote on the school district budget, a far cry from richly funded partisan political elections.

In this school board election cycle national politics has encroached school boards. The media has carried confrontations at school board meetings with police called in to keep the peace, Accusations of teaching CRT (Critical Race Theory), it might be a subject of discussion in a handful of law schools, not K-12 schools (blame Tucker Carlson) the oldest trope, sex education, and states passed laws to prohibit the teaching of CRT and in a few states teaching anything which might “discomfort” students (whatever that means). The National School Boards Association made an unprecedented request,

“Threats of violence and acts of intimidation” directed at school officials were escalating across the country, the association said, and it asked the Biden Administration to investigate and use “existing statutes, executive authority,” and “other extraordinary measures” to combat a phenomenon it likened to domestic terrorism. … Attorney General Merrick Garland decried such incidents and ordered the F.B.I. to monitor them.

Newsday reports that school board elections on Long Island “…are getting nasty.”

My local school district encompasses a village at the eastern end of Suffolk County, one K-8 school; the kids attend high school in an adjoining district. On Monday the school board is hosting a budget meeting, and it might be contentious.

Nextdoor Neighbor is a website on which anyone can comment, usually asks a question, “Anyone interested in babysitting? Can you recommend a reliable plumber? How do I get a raccoon out of my basement?”  Questions arose about the upcoming vote on the school budget, “Why was there such an increase in professional development?” “Are they planning to teach CRT?”  “Sex Education?”  

I tried to explain, states received COVID relief dollars and New York State passed a chunk of the money on to school districts, non-recurring dollars, and districts are using the $$ to upgrade teacher skills in the just implemented New Generation Learning Standards (Read here) which will be reflected on the 2023 State standardized tests.

Even in this serene village, everyone nods and says hello, the weekenders, the retirees, the families with roots in the 18th century, the new Latino arrivers, I don’t know how anyone voted in 2020, it’s none of my business, and the usually somnambulant school board election suddenly becomes far more important.

If you live on New York State mark May 17th on your calendar and check out who is running for the school board in your community.

We may have found a cure for most evils, but we have found no remedy for the worst of them all, the apathy of human beings.

Helen Keller

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