Local politics: Why you should pay attention to school board races this fall


by Mary Ellen Flannery

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Who sets your salary? Who hires your principal? Who decides how many students will sit in your classrooms (21 or, oh no, maybe 36?) and whether those kids will have new textbooks or district-provided iPads?

Charts1It’s not that guy in the White House, nor typically the men and women sent to Tallahassee, Madison, Olympia, and other state capitols. For the answer, look a little closer to home.

In most places, locally elected school board members make the decisions that impact the lives of educators and students every day. School board members approve budgets, sign employee contracts, hire and fire school-based administrators, decide whether to privatize the services of say, custodians or school bus drivers, purchase new technology, approve charter school contracts, explore merit-pay systems, expel students, draw school boundary lines, spend the money on new classrooms or school facilities, stand up to standardized testing, and more.

That’s why NEA-affiliated local and state unions are focusing their minds and resources on the names at the bottom of this fall’s electoral ballots. “We want to elect people who will do right on the issues that are most important to our members and our schools,” says Ed Martin, public affairs director for the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA). And that means state and local NEA leaders must take a powerful role in shaping pro-student, pro-educator boards.

These days, it’s not enough to send questionnaires to folks who say they want to serve, and then share the feedback with members. With the stakes higher than ever for public school educators and students, NEA affiliates are actively reaching out to the most qualified people—often educators—and training them for office.

Stepping up to the Political Plate

That includes Debbie Bernauer, a recently retired kindergarten and first-grade teacher who is running for school board in the Brecksville-Broadview Heights School District in northern Ohio—just a few miles from where Strongsville, Ohio, teachers struck for eight weeks last spring.

“Last year, negotiations [in Brecksville-Broadview] were more contentious than ever, and we really came very, very close to having a strike. We need to have somebody in there who understands what we need in the classroom, and brings that perspective to the table,” Bernauer said.

Over 36 years, Bernauer figures she’s taught about 1,000 Brecksville kids to read and write. It doesn’t take much more than first-grade math skills to compute the implications for this November’s election. Those 1,000 students have moms and dads, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Some have voting-age children of their own. They all know that Mrs. Bernauer is dedicated to making sure every child has the opportunity to learn, and that every educator has the tools they need to make it happen.

Debbie Bernauer (right) needs to gather 75 signatures to qualify for the school board ballot in Brecksville-Broadview Heights. During the local fair, she gathers
several hundred from eager supporters.

On a recent summer day, Bernauer takes her campaign to the Broadview Heights Home Days on the Green, a neighborhood party replete with cotton candy on sticks and local candidates with clipboards. It’s the perfect opportunity for her to collect the required signatures to get her name on November’s ballot.

A few feet from the raffle ticket tent, Bernauer scores the flourishing signature of a local gifted teacher who tells her about the 35 kids in his class last year. Nearby, the Ferris wheel slows to a stop and Bernauer’s former principal lifts the safety bar and pops off, exclaiming “I’d love to sign for you!”

Bernauer runs into the mayor, whose endorsement she’s already won. “Come walk the subdivisions with me!” he urges. A few feet from the Ohio Cornhole Club’s booth, she sees her elementary school’s former custodian who has been retired for 17 years. “Oscar!” Bernauer exclaims.

Charts2This isn’t the idle wandering of a political newbie. Although Bernauer never has run for local office before, she has served as president of the local association. She also worked tirelessly during the successful battle to defeat Ohio Senate Bill 5, an anti-union law that would have dismantled the collective bargaining rights of the state’s public sector workers.

Still, making the transition from activist to candidate requires support, and  Bernauer got exactly that from the Ohio Education Association. During two days of intensive campaign training provided by OEA, with campaign experts from Wellstone and the Progressive Majority on hand, Bernauer studied fundraising strategies, media relations, use of voter data and more. She learned how to create opportunities for people to support her: “Knock on doors with me,” she tells former colleagues. “Let’s have a neighborhood coffee,” she urges old friends.

Turning toward the parking lot at Home Days, Bernauer crosses paths with one more teacher. Hugs are shared. Children are admired. One more signature is acquired. Taking her arm, Bernaurer’s former colleague says, “Debbie, you know we’re all behind you—and that’s a powerful thing. That’s good power!”

Educator Power!

There is no doubt that educator power can swing a school board toward the interests of educators and students. Consider the recent good work of the Omaha Education Association.

Last January, Nebraska’s Unicameral Legislature proposed a measure to dramatically change the structure of Omaha’s school board by creating nine new school board positions. A good thing! The previous board had lost the confidence of educators and—obviously—state legislators too. Things moved fast: The bill was signed into law in February, primary elections were held in April, and general elections occurred in May. Fortunately, local union leaders were ready to seize the opportunity.

Running for school board was never part of Bernauer’s retirement plans, she said. But she cares too much about public education to leave it.

“We knew we were dealing with a situation where we would have a new superintendent and a new school board,” said Maddie Fennell, chair of OEA’s political action committee and elementary school teacher, adding that OEA’s goal was to build a new board that would advocate for classroom teachers. That winter, recalls Fennell, the OEA political action committee “sat down and asked, ‘What are we looking for? What do we want to see in candidates?’” They also met with a group of influential business leaders who also sought more qualified school board candidates. “They gave us their platform, and we were actually in agreement about what we all were looking for,” Fennell recalls.

By April, 18 candidates had survived the spring primaries. The union then inter­viewed all (except for one who refused to meet), recommending nine to the business leaders as good candidates. In the end, eight of the union-supported candidates won their races, and in the process, the union earned allies in Omaha’s business community.

Charts3With new school board members, vetted and elected by massive numbers of educators, things have changed for the better in Omaha. “You didn’t use to find teachers on school district committees,” Fennell notes. Now you do. You also didn’t used to hear school board members seek the input of union officers during school board meetings. Now you do. “We are hearing an increased teacher voice in the district, and we are hopeful that will continue,” Fennell says.

“You win things for students and educators when you elect people who will do right by them,” says Martin of the TSTA. Consider the school board in a San Antonio suburb where union-endorsed candidates took a majority of seats this spring. At first, the district’s superintendent lamented the lack of money for raises, Martin recalls. But when TSTA provided real-time state budget figures to the school board members who understand the value educators bring to the classroom, the situation turned around—and raises were won.

And this happened in a right-to-work state, where union leaders can’t sit down to collectively bargain contracts with school officials. Under those circumstances, which are becoming increasingly common, it’s more important than ever to elect leaders who respect educators’ work, understand that everything shouldn’t be about high-stakes standardized tests, and want listen to educators—the true experts—when it comes to the things that work (and don’t work) in schools and classrooms.

“So why are you running?” someone asks Debbie Bernauer as she makes her way past the homemade pierogi stand. “Well, I was a teacher for 34 years,” she begins, “and I think I have something to offer.”

Reader Comments

  1. I decided to run for the local school board after I retired as a school principal, but then withdrew from the race. Here, it seems that people don’t want “another educator” on the board. They are looking for business people. As a principal of a school with over a $6 million a year budget, 1740 students, and 150+ employees, I had the business expertise. I also had the knowledge of what needs there were in the classroom, as I taught 20+ years. Integrity and commitment to students and teachers were my priorities. But, unfortunately, not all see it that way!

  2. I am a retired teacher and also a school board member. It is well worth the effort!! We have the expertise that many of the other board members know nothing about!! We know what it is really like in the classroom. It is a real change to become active in local politics but it can also be a very rewarding part of your retirement. I have been on the board for eight years and feel it is important to bring a teachers perspective to the board.

  3. As a 20 year classroom veteran (now in year six in an inner city school) AND current chair of the school board in the smaller rural town where I send my own kids to school, I note two things:

    1. SOME school board members and voters see school affiliation as a conflict of interest in school board work; those considering running for school board should feel out their communities carefully to see if this will be something they need to manage in a campaign and as an elected representative. In my own town, this is egregious: when I first ran for the board, current board members and Selectmen expressed concern that my affiliation with the state teacher’s union (which is “de facto” involuntary in this state, since I’d have to pay dues or equivalent monetary penalties either way) compromised my ability to participate in negotiations. In order to get elected, I had to essentially commit not to sit on the negotiations subcommittee, and not to get involved in such issues. Recently, I watched a strong and well-educated recently retired administrator lose a close “selectmen and school board members” vote to replace a vacancy on the board when the then-chair of the board said that adding a person with such strong “administrative and school sympathies” to the board would be like “letting the fox loose in the henhouse”.

    2. Thanks to laws passed in the early nineties which limited our oversight to a) large-scale budget approval, b) superintendent hiring, and c) crafting and setting policy, in Massachusetts, at least, much of the leverage you attribute to School Boards is overstated here. Our only direct hiring power is over the Superintendent; while it is true that we approve the budget, which gives us a voice at the table in issues like technology spending, privatization of services, and principal hiring, we are one voice among several, we often are only making those decisions on the recommendation of and information provided by administrators, and we do not have the final say. Policy-based governance is powerful, truly, and I am glad to have a chance to serve and influence and shape the direction of the schools in our town, but school boards in this state who wield their power in the ways you describe have overstepped their boundaries severely they will both pay a political price, and slow down the work of good administrators.

  4. Our union-supported school board candidate did not succeed in the last round because a group that pretends to be grass roots but is really a charter school/privatization advocacy group opposed our candidate. When you look at their financial filings, you see that there are mainly 3 donors that gave about $150,000 compared to the union expenditure of about $10,000. Why do these big money people care so much about our little school board race? I think it is not just in my community, so beware!

    1. Simple answer as to why the big money interests care…they stand to make even more money off privatizing buses, custodians, and especially private charters, and for-profit virtual schools. There is no end to the greed here.

  5. Our school board elections have moved to even-numbered years to save money and achieve higher voter input for BUSD, Benicia, CA and all of Solano County! Join us by voting November, 2014. Caution: Not all teachers translate to great school board members! Many people have the heart, integrity, intelligence, and commitment to become valuable school board members and all candidates are not equal! Vote wisely! I am a current BUSD School Board Trustee since 2005 and a BUSD retired teacher (1969-2004).

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