By Donald Webster Jr.
With the school year drawing to a close, now might seem like an unusual time to bring up board of education membership. But the fact is that this year’s school board candidacy deadline — July 25 — is quickly approaching. In more than 90 percent of New Jersey’s school districts, the annual school election will take place on General Election Day, Nov. 8.
So the time for qualified citizens to consider school board candidacy is today and I urge you to do so.
Why serve on your local board of education?
Having more than 20 years of board of education service, I can provide an extensive list of answers to that question — all focused on the importance of community service and educational progress. However, I will turn to comments by fellow school board members who appeared in a recent video produced by the New Jersey School Boards Association, “Consider Serving on Your Local School Board!”
“I’m part of a team, and achievement — student achievement — comes first on that team,” commented a board member from Union County.
“I would recommend it to anybody who has the heart and drive to be part of education for our kids,” said a Bergen County board member.
A school board member from Somerset County noted, “I like to serve on the school board to make a difference for the kids in the state and especially the kids in my own district.”
By law, school board membership is a nonpartisan public office. It is also unpaid. However, as you can see from the comments above, as well as others in NJSBA’s video, there are intangible rewards that are beyond measurement.
For me, those rewards are best represented by the honor of addressing the graduates of my district’s high school as the board president. And don’t ever believe there is “disconnect” between what we do in the school board meeting room and the classroom. Research shows that strong, effective school district leadership has a positive impact on student achievement.
Interested? I invite you to visit NJSBA’s school board candidacy website at www.njsba.org/candidacy for more information. In addition, here are some frequently asked questions about school board membership and the election process:
What is the role of the local school board?
The local board of education sets the policies that guide school district operations, affecting what is taught in the classroom and how it is taught, staffing, extracurricular programming, and the use of school buildings. It adopts curriculum, approves the budget, hires and evaluates the superintendent, and negotiates contracts with staff, including teachers.
Local school board members do not run the schools — that is the job of the superintendent and administration. But together with their fellow board members, they ensure that the schools are well-run.
What are the legal qualifications for local school board membership?
To serve on a local school board in New Jersey, you must be a U.S. citizen, have at least one year’s residency in the school district (or, in the case of a regional school district, in the constituent municipality you would represent on the board), and be a registered voter in the district or constituent municipality. In addition, the “Qualifications” statute cites a list of disqualifying criminal offenses. (Newly elected board members must also undergo a criminal history record check in order to serve in office.)
Board members may not serve on the municipal governing body or as mayor and cannot hold another elective office. Also, they may not have a contract with, or claim against, the board.
Are there other requirements?
Beyond the legal qualifications, successful school board membership requires certain personal attributes: A commitment to all of the community’s school children; the ability to work collaboratively with fellow board members and the superintendent without compromising your beliefs; and the willingness to devote long hours to addressing issues facing the schools. Effective school board membership involves much more than attendance at a couple of meetings a month.
I’m not familiar with school district operations. How do I learn more?
School board membership in New Jersey is based on the concept of lay control. The board of education is elected from the citizenry and its members do not have to be educators or experts in school law, finance or collective bargaining. The school board, however, establishes goals for the district in areas ranging from student achievement to finance and facilities. It works with the administration toward meeting the goals, while holding it accountable for progress.
As a result, new board members face a sharp learning curve. In recognition of this, the state of New Jersey requires school board members to undergo training in each year of the first term in office, and in the year following re-election. Programming addresses ethics, superintendent evaluation, the responsibilities of board membership, school finance, student achievement, the state’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, and other legal developments.
The New Jersey School Boards Association, a federation of the state’s local boards of education, provides the required training at no cost through a variety of in-person and online programs. Additionally, through its Board Member Academy, NJSBA offers specialized training in school board leadership, negotiations, school law and other areas.
How long are board member terms?
Elected school board positions consist of three-year terms. However, unexpired terms of one or two years may also be on the ballot.
OK, I’m interested. How do I get started?
A candidate must file a nominating petition, signed by at least 10 registered voters of the school district, or in the case of a regional school district, 10 registered voters of the constituent municipality the candidate would represent on the board.
For the 2016 November school election, candidates must file the nominating petition with the office of the county clerk no later than 4 p.m. July 25. For information about the qualifications for candidacy, locations of county clerks’ offices, and obtaining nominating petitions, visit NJSBA’s School Board Candidacy website at www.njsba.org/candidacy
Donald Webster Jr., is president of the New Jersey School Boards Association and president of the Manchester Township School District Board of Education in Ocean County,