School boards are incredibly powerful: Here’s what to know ahead of Election Day

This story, originally published in 2021, has been updated. Photo above by Aaron Mello.

It’s the time of year when red, white and blue signs litter lawns with the names of school board candidates. You see them throughout Pittsburgh’s city neighborhoods and surrounding suburbs, offering names of candidates — and sometimes whole slates — to consider.

Is it really that important to vote in these local elections, especially if you’re happy with your child’s school or if you don’t have children in school? The answer is a resounding YES.

1. School board elections really matter

The school board makes decisions about taxation in your community and how school tax dollars can be spent. So they impact all residents, whether those residents have children or not.

“On a day-to-day basis, local races — and especially school boards — really have an impact on communities, everything from the quality of life to the type of children we’re turning out. In a lot of ways, you can make the argument that school board is perhaps the most important thing you can vote for,” says Mike Mikus, a strategist with Chartiers Group LLC.

And yet as hugely powerful as the school board is, only about 20% of people in each district cast votes for school board members. So these 20% of residents in a given community end up choosing the school directors in most elections, says James Fogarty, executive director of A+ Schools, which advocates for the educational interests of Pittsburgh students.

2. Schools are the foundation of government involvement.

“If you don’t like what’s happening and you want to change things, it starts with you voting and reaching out to your neighbors to encourage them to do the same,” says Fogarty.

Pennsylvania’s 501 school districts (including the 44 in Allegheny County) have school boards who are meant to ensure that a superintendent runs a district well. Each board’s nine unpaid members serve four-year terms and run for reelection on a staggered basis — five in one election cycle and four the next two years.

The state requires newly elected school directors to complete five hours of training in their first year, and reseated directors must complete three hours, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA). But many school board members have no background in education or experience that relates to running a school district.

3. The quality of schools determines the quality of your neighborhood.

The quality of local schools matters because “the quality of your neighborhoods, in many ways, is determined by the schools,” says Fogarty. “How your community supports public education, how we support children, matters to our economy and our civil society. Our children prepare for the jobs of today, let alone the jobs of the future, and are they ready to take part in a democracy that requires citizen participation and citizen responsibility?”

4. How school boards react to emergencies — like the pandemic — is crucial.

School boards gained power during the pandemic because they determined whether learning would be remote, in-person in classrooms or some hybrid combination.

“As much as we don’t want to talk about school as child care, the reality is that it is both a place of learning and real growth for kids, but also a place where parents can safely send their children during the day so they can work,” Fogarty says. “If you’re pleased with what your board did during the pandemic, then maybe you should be voting for the incumbents. If not, it’s an opportunity to talk with school board members and ask, ‘What’s your plan to address [potential problems]?’”

When the pandemic hit, school boards began offering the public access to their meetings via Zoom, and many boards may still offer that option when things return to normal, says Mikus. It’s another way for people to educate themselves about the issues and the folks who can have an outsized impact on their property taxes.

5. Your school board controls (a lot of) your tax dollars.

It can be rather astounding to think how much control a school board, made up of elected volunteers, has over your city, borough or township’s budget. For example, the Pittsburgh Public Schools budget is almost $70 million larger than the entire budget for the City of Pittsburgh.

As a voter, you want to find people who are fiscally responsible to reliably control those purse strings.

6. It’s up to you to evaluate school board candidates.

Even if people are motivated to vote, they may not recognize any of the names on the ballot, especially for local races, such as school board candidates.

“It does take some work — it can be as simple as going to a school board meeting or talking to friends and family to see what they know about the candidates,” Mikus says. “If you happen to stumble on a candidate in a grocery store, or if they’re in your neighborhood knocking on doors, it’s important to have a conversation with them about what they want to do, whether it’s spending money or [enacting] various policies.”

The PSBA offers potential school board candidates a guide to running for office. Many people don’t have much money for such campaigns, relying mostly on yard signs, social media and door knocking, says Mikus.

Election Day will be here soon — this year it falls on Tuesday, Nov. 7. So now is the time to learn as much as you can about the people running for school board in your community.

“If you haven’t done your research at this point, talk to your neighbors. If you’re a parent with children in schools, talk to the teachers and principals,” Fogarty says. “Try to get as much information from as many sources as you can.”