Frequently Asked Questions about Students on School Boards
Following are some of the frequently asked questions SoundOut has collected after more than a decade of training school boards, students, and others about students on school boards. Where there are links, there is more information.
Can students join my district school boards and/or the state board of education?
It depends on which state you live in.
In the United States, are students guaranteed representation on the school board?
Which students can serve on school boards?
It depends on what rules are set by state laws and/or local school boards. Most school boards consist of adults who live in the local community and are selected by the community (or, if it’s an appointed school board, selected by either the mayor or county elected officials). They are parents, grandparents, local business owners, retirees and other ordinary people. They are non-partisan. Students who serve on school boards should be the same: Ordinary, everyday students. They should be struggling students, average achieving students or high achieving; fully disengaged or completely busy; students of color or white students; girls and boys and students who identify otherwise. However, they can be whichever students are chosen by local or state rules and regulations.
What is the role of the school board and students on school boards?
The school board should represent the concerns of local people to school administrators, and to represent the needs of the students and school district to the the community. The school board does not operate the district on a day-to-day basis; that is the job of the superintendent, who is the district’s chief executive. Rather, the school board sets the policies, goals and objectives for the district – and it holds the superintendent responsible for implementing the policies and achieving the goals. Students on school boards should participate fully in ALL of these activities. Discover different roles for students on school boards.
I have a problem with my school. When is the student school board member the right person to share it with?
SoundOut suggests students work with the leadership structure in schools to address their concerns, which can help promote Meaningful Student Involvement. For instance, if a student has a problem with a teacher, the student should first address it with the teacher and, if the issue is not resolved, the student should turn to the principal or headmaster. If that fails, they can bring their concerns to the student school board member, and then the district superintendent. In districts with student representatives, students addressing the school board should be the last resort. Often, students can get answers to their questions simply by calling the right person in the school district.
Can students speak at school board meetings?
Generally, state laws require a public comment period at school board meetings, no matter whether they are students or adults. Boards are allowed to establish reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of public comment. For instance, school boards typically set guidelines on the length of an individual’s comment (e.g., a certain amount of time per person), so no one person dominates the meeting. There is no required format for public comment; some boards have one public-comment period in the middle of the meeting, some have two public-comment sessions during a board meeting.
Some districts have student representatives attend school board meetings but do not allow them to talk unless they are invited to. Few states have laws mandating students be able to fully participate as full members of school boards. Several states legally prohibit students from joining school boards.
What is proper protocol for public participation?
Comments from the public generally go through the chair at the board meeting who is usually the board president. Boards use the public comment period as an opportunity to listen to citizen concerns, but not to debate issues or enter into a question-and-answer session or a “cross examination” between the public and individual members. Be aware that not all issues brought before a board meeting will be resolved that evening; boards may respond to public comment by seeking additional information or by delegating the authority to investigate the issue to the superintendent or his/her designee. While public education can be an emotional issue, and understandably so, the board will strive to maintain a certain level of decorum at the meeting. Many meetings are recorded or televised, and students often attend or participate in the meetings. As such, citizens are expected to maintain tone of courtesy and civility.
How does the board set its rules at the meeting?
A local school board’s parliamentary procedure is a matter of local policy. Most boards follow Roberts Rules of Order, which describes how meetings are run, how motions and votes are taken and other procedures. The school board’s secretary can inform citizens on rules of order and other issues of board policy.
The board goes into a closed-door meeting each meeting. Why can’t the public and students witness what occurs there?
Often, state laws dictate areas that are to be discussed in “executive” or closed-door sessions. Among the most common include privacy issues (including employee privacy as well as matters dealing with individual students and student discipline); anticipated litigation and issues involving attorney-client privilege; negotiations with labor unions and negotiating strategy; matters involving the purchase of property; and any issues dealing with security that could undermine safety if made public. Sometimes, citizens will want to know why a school board took a vote regarding a particular staff member (e.g., not re-hiring a teacher or principal). However, school board members are not allowed to publicly discuss evaluative aspects of the staff member’s employment, unless the employee authorizes it.
Sometimes student school board members are limited as to which topics they are allowed to hear during meetings. They can include any of the above, as well as anything else determined by the school board.
What is a board agenda?
A board agenda is a plan for the meeting set to happen. Generally, school boards are not required by law to post an agenda for each meeting. However, most do have an agenda. If they do, the agenda must reasonably reflect the matters to be discussed. However, the board is not precluded from addressing an issue that arises just because it was not on the agenda. In some states and provinces, school boards must publicly post an annual notice describing the date and location of meetings. However, they aren’t obligated to share their agendas.
My school board seems to rapidly work through the agenda, without much debate. Why is that?
There are different ways to conduct school board meetings that are very public or very private. School boards can meet openly for the majority of their matters. Sometimes, school boards have a “workshop” or “caucus” meeting where they discuss issues in greater detail, but don’t vote on the issues. Sometimes, they will hear a wide range of public opinions in general sessions and then go into workshop sessions. Boards may use a committee structure where certain members of the board, often working with the superintendent or key administrators, study a specific issue and make recommendations to the full board for a vote. By the time the board has a regular “agenda” or “business” meeting where it votes on issues, the agenda items have usually been vetted or studied already and members are simply prepared to vote up or down an issue.
What is the difference between school board policy and state or provincial regulations and statutes?
School board policies, regulations and statutes all govern the ways school boards behave. Statutes are the laws that are enacted by state or, in Canada, provincial legislators. Usually the law will contain broad language on an issue, and it will authorize the appropriate agency (which could be the state Department of Education, or DOE; or Superintendent of Public Instruction, or SPI; or other state education agencies; and in Canada, Ministries of Education) to write regulations, also called “administrative code,” that detail how the law will be carried out.
Local public schools must adhere to state or provincial statutes and regulations. There are many aspects of school management that the state does not manage. Those are covered by the local school board’s policies, which are the local school board’s rules and guidelines that detail how the district will operate. Policies address many issues ranging from student discipline and dress codes to whether the district will rent the gym to community groups after school hours. The province or state generally does not delve into the oversight of local board policies unless there is a specific law requiring boards to have policies on an issue (such as bullying), or if the local board’s policies are found to be arbitrary or capricious, or have otherwise run afoul of state laws and regulations.
What role does the state/province school board association or the state department of education or state superintendent play?
School board associations are service organizations that may provide training, assistance and advocacy for local school boards. However, they are generally not regulatory agencies and do not have authority over local school districts. State departments of education and provincial ministries of education are the agencies that regulate public schools.
If a person has an issue that cannot be resolved by working up the chain of command locally, he or she can bring it to the attention of their provincial or state education agency. These agencies often serve as an effective liaison between local residents and the state or provincial education agency. There may be School Ethics Commissions or education ombudsmen who hear cases involving conflicts of interest and possible ethics violations. The state education leader or minister of education also hears many cases dealing with education issues.
Adapted from the New Jersey School Boards Association – Parent Connections.
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