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Our Schools Need Your Help in May

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The party that’s held the majority in Josephine County for most of 100 years, is on a mission to “shape and fortify our community” according to their latest fund-raising letter. Because Josephine County Republicans have already shaped and fortified the county to the point where it is difficult for anyone outside their circle to get elected to local office no matter how talented and experienced, they’ve created a haven for guns, street-corner preachers railing against abortion, election deniers, conspiracy theorists and self-righteous political groupies.

Living where they are dominant makes it difficult to keep rallying their troops, so they’ve decided to attack schools because “our children’s innocence is stolen with highly sexualized programming and minimal focus on basic education in public schools” according to their website. This is patently untrue, as those who actually work in the schools say, but JCRs have vowed to elect “conservatives to serve on every commission and board in this county” and creating a controversy is their way of accomplishing that goal.

With that partisan goal as a challenge, it’s time for people who actually want to be on a school board for non-partisan reasons to step up. Voters need to pay attention to positions they probably never thought much about. To find out what the JCR’s agenda means to our schools, we need to take a look at how people get elected to school boards in the county and what their influence is.

How People Get Elected To School Boards

The Oregon School Boards Association (OSBA) has a “Guide for Oregon School District Board Candidates. Requirements are basic. You must be a registered voter, at least 18 years old, lived in the district for at least a year and not be an employee of said district. School board elections take place on the third Tuesday in May and the filing deadline is 61 days prior to the election. That means this year’s deadline to file is March 16. Candidates also have to be mindful of state requirements regarding fund-raising and donations to the campaign.

School board seats are supposedly non-partisan, four-year terms and campaigns are usually low-key. The position involves a lot of studying – endless state and district rules, curriculum, the various “Title” programs, open meeting laws, the fiscal shape of the district, the condition of the district’s buildings and property, how the students are transported and fed and how they’re kept safe. The typical campaign involves an initial fund-raiser and various speaking engagements. Candidates may get a profile in the local newspaper and some fortify that exposure with an ad or two. Traditionally school board elections don’t excite voters unless they involve some controversy.

That’s where the Republicans come in with their accusations of “stolen children’s innocence.” They make up a story about pornographic images in Kindergartens so they can increase their turnout and get “conservatives” on school boards who will make sure little kids aren’t exposed to anything they think is inappropriate, like the fact that some kids have two moms or two dads. In places like Florida, this has meant scouring the curriculum, banning books and driving teachers and school administrators out of their minds. With a constituency immersed in right-wing media paranoia it isn’t hard to whip up the base when its needed.

However, scouring classrooms for porn isn’t the Republicans’ main goal.

In a blue state like Oregon, where Republicans are in the minority at the state level, they plan on playing the long game by using school board and other seemingly benign elected positions and committee assignments at the local level as a step up the ladder to an eventual statehouse majority and the governorship. In a Republican dominated county this isn’t hard but they do need turnout to secure those elected positions and keep candidates deemed insufficiently conservative from holding office: hence the manufactured outrage about “stolen children’s innocence.”

Should school board positions be thought of as a way to impose a group’s values in a community and a rung in the ladder toward the power to impose their values on the state? Or are board positions in themselves important threads in the fabric of the community? Can a majority of extremists actually ban books, inject religion into the curriculum and fire teachers they think are too liberal?

To figure that out, take a look at a school board’s powers and responsibilities.

School Board Powers and Responsibilities

According to OSBA’s guide, a school board member’s duty is to represent all students, staff and concerned citizens in the community, not just those with an exaggerated concern about porn in Kindergarten. Authority rests with the board as a whole, not the individual board member, so one anti-porn member might be viewed as a nut, but three anti-porn members on a five-member board can have an impact on policy. It is a board member’s responsibility to become educated about the district and all the governing rules by going through the proper channels to get information and legal opinions. The district is usually more than happy to provide a new board member with needed information. This is where a board member who gets elected promising prayer in every classroom would quickly run up against a barrier of laws relating to the Constitution’s separation of church and state.

Board members will hear a lot of complaints but every district has a policy for dealing with them. Which complaints are listened to will depend on the board. If a majority gets elected to be “a keeper of children’s innocence” they could lower the tolerance level for conspiracy theories and misinformation.

Board members may visit the schools to gain information, but no individual board member has the authority to direct the superintendent or school staff based on what they perceive. The entire board is needed to approve that. One board member can’t just walk into a classroom or library and start confiscating books.

Boards approve administrators’ contracts and are involved in the hiring, firing and evaluation of a superintendent, but again, a majority has to agree. A very conservative board in Benton County Oregon, looking for a superintendent with their values, ended up hiring Marc Thielman who defied state mandates regarding COVID, lost the district money because of that and who was later accused of creating a hostile work environment in his office, especially toward women. Thielman later ran for governor as an ultra-conservative during the Republican primary.

A superintendent follows the academic and financial priorities established by the board, which also approves bond elections if necessary. A board sets the tone for the relationship with the superintendent. If that becomes difficult the superintendent sometimes has no choice but to leave…or hope the next election changes things. Effective school superintendents are very hard to find these days as fewer people are electing that as a career.

The board authorizes the superintendent to approve contracts and business transactions in accordance with board policies. The board also directs the collective bargaining process, salaries, salary schedules, terms and conditions of employment and personal policies as well as determines the days of the year and hours of the day when school will be in session.

Each school district has a long list of board responsibilities and powers, many of which are established by the state legislature. School boards can determine the rules governing the conduct of board members and public comment by those attending the meetings. Board meetings are public meetings and members must know and adhere to the state’s open meeting laws. Boards are responsible for providing adequate and direct means to help members stay informed about the needs and wishes of the public and for keeping local citizens informed about the schools.

The board is also obligated to stay in touch with state legislators and represent the district’s interests in legislative action. In other words, board members need to pay attention to legislation that affects the district but cannot lobby for or against such legislation as an individual, only for the official stand of the board. Local boards are also subject to policies established by the Oregon School Board Association. Policy changes at the local level are guided by recommendations of staff and legal counsel, with input from parents and the community.

There is also an Ethics and Conflict of Interest policy in each district that essentially says no board member may use the office for financial gain, accept gifts from a special interest source or use the position to help a friend or relative get a job in the district.

School boards can’t fire teachers or discipline students, but they can stand as a court of appeal for such actions, acting as a fact-finding body and going over policies to determine if the rights of the individual have been addressed.

School board positions are important links between schools and the community and are responsible for two of that community’s most precious resources, its children and its revenue. A school’s policies can affect the futures of both. The OSBA has a guide for what makes a good school board member and what makes an ineffective one. A good board member believes in public education, the democratic process and respect for district employees who have professional expertise. Ineffective ones get too involved in the day to day operation of the district, represent a special interest, try to impose their partisan values on a non-partisan operation or stay in the seat just long enough to clamor for the next rung on the ladder without going through the process of really learning what public education is all about.

School board positions are not just benign seats to keep warm until a commissioner or state representative seat opens up. School board positions require a lot of time, curiosity, willingness to learn complicated policies and regulations and a lot of patience for those who come to the board with conspiracy theories and misinformation. School board members are the first ones to get hammered when some new outrage bubbles up. School districts need steady hands at the helm, not people guided by extreme views and grandiose motives. Those who can provide a steady hand are encouraged to run. It won’t be easy but if a reward, to you, is the expression on the face of a graduate of your district and the satisfaction of knowing you helped that along, then run for it.

More information about the duties of a school board member and the district’s policies can be found on the district’s website. Information about running for a board can be found at OSBA.

Three Rivers District is here https://www.3riverssd.org/district/school-board

Grants Pass School District 7 is here https://www.grantspass.k12.or.us/our-district/board-of-education

Southern Oregon Education Service District is here https://www.soesd.k12.or.us/about/

Oregon School Boards Association https://www.osba.org/

Rogue Community College https://www.roguecc.edu/BOE/