Candidate debates—challenge for stakeholders

Every year in May, school district stakeholders in New York elect their representatives to the local school boards. There are around 120 of them in Long Island alone. The school boards consist of 5 to 9 ordinary residents who earn living in their line of profession and, in addition, they volunteer their free time on behalf of the students and community.

The school boards govern the school district. In many communities, the school districts are the largest employers. ($54M/year in MUFSD of 1700 students) The individual board members have no authority outside of the boardroom, but the school board as a whole serves as the governing body.

school board candidate debateThe responsibilities of a public school board include, but are not limited to:

  • The hiring and firing of the local school system superintendent.
  • Buying and selling school property.
  • Calling bond elections to authorize the issuance of bonded debt.
  • Making the policies and rules necessary to govern the school system.
  • Reorganization and consolidation of schools within their control.
  • Authority to hire employees on the recommendation of the superintendent.

It is a huge responsibility laying on shoulders of volunteers. Often in reality, the hired “expert management” assumes the governing role.

So, what qualities and skills should the candidate have? Here are some questions to consider:

  • What is the candidate’s vision and goals?
  • Does the candidate inspire parents and other stakeholders to have confidence in the local public schools?
  • Does the candidate understand that the school board’s role is about the big picture, setting the direction for the district and providing oversight and accountability rather than the day-to-day management (micro-management)?
  • Does the candidate focus on a single issue or is he or she concerned about all the issues that come before the board?
  • Does the candidate’s approach make it likely that he or she will be able to work effectively with the rest of the board to get things done?

District stakeholders can learn the qualities of a candidate from various sources. First, an infopage online, created by fans or candidates themselves, then local newspapers come to mind. Some candidates distribute flyers; but most communities organize a “meet the candidate” debate.

Aware of difficulties with organization of such debate, I asked buddies in my edu. network how the debates are organized in their districts.

Depending on who takes care of the organization, the responses can be sorted in three groups:

  1. PTA alone takes care of this responsibility.
  2. The district uses solely a third party in order to assure unbiased moderation.
  3. A collaborative effort between the local PTA and the League of Women Voters. This hybrid group represented the majority of responses.

One particular answer coming from a BOE member raised my curiosity:

“Port Washington: we have 3:
• Formal debate organized by League of Women Voters
• A forum with the TA
• A forum moderated by our chapter of AGATE (Ass. for Gifted and Talented Ed.)”

Residents of Port Washington SD hold three meet the candidate debates as their service to the community. (My visit to their SD website revealed interesting facts that deserve further research and a separate post).

In terms of introducing candidates for the board of education in Malverne UFSD, the residents can rely on services of the NAACP, Lakeview chapter.

“….we try to do the forums every year now since the schools stopped doing them,”

said Bea Bailey, the chapter president and continued:

“We want everyone to be informed voters. There were some years that the board seat wasn’t contested, but even if there is only one name on the ballot the public should get to know something about them.”

This year, they hold the meeting with candidates on Tuesday, April 26th at 8 pm at the St. Paul’s AME Church, 453 Pershing Blvd.

In 2014, the Lakeview Community Council also organized a candidate forum, as one of the council members was running for a seat.

The MUFSD community has been relying solely on the initiative of third parties since 2012. Year when the PTA-organized, biased debate was so grossly mishandled that the parents have not recovered yet from it. It awaits arrival of a fresh generation of parents who will view the candidate debate as a valuable service to the community. Either the league or the NAACP, organizations with experience will be there to help. #gomules

What experience do you have in your school district?


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