The commonwealth of Pennsylvania holds elections for school board directors each odd year, and every school district with the exception of Philadelphia elects either four or five new members in that cycle. In December, all new board members are sworn in.
In 2021, hundreds of new school board members were elected across the state and began their four year term. This December marks the one year anniversary for the new board members. I reached out to a number of newly elected board members and asked them to share some of the experiences since taking office.
As with the Broad + Liberty candidate spotlight series, each director answered the same set of questions to give them an opportunity to share their experiences. We will post a different interview each day.
Feedback from seven school board members a year after taking office revealed a number of similarities and some differences. These directors represent suburban, urban, and rural districts across the state and include the following counties: Chester, Montgomery, Bucks, York, Dauphin, Beaver, and Erie.
The most startling similarity amongst the respondents was that they ran for office to put our students and their education first. Most had never aspired to run for office before but were compelled to run as a result of concerns about our public schools.
School board directors volunteer their time for the position. They are not compensated in any way, and the majority of directors hold a full-time job in addition to their board responsibilities. Responses from the directors regarding the amount of time they spend each month on board activities varied greatly, ranging from a minimum of six hours up to 80 hours per month depending on the month and specific issues. For example, Harrisburg School District is in receivership, so the board does not have the same latitude as other districts in terms of decision-making.
I truly believe many of our public schools have lost sight of their purpose, and this is having a crippling impact on all our students and by extension our country. Service to humanity is always the best work of life.
Several board members shared concerns about communication with the district administration and specifically the superintendent. Two of the districts replaced their superintendent within the last year. Other board members described a lack of trust with the administration.
The majority of interviewees expressed the need to spend more time talking directly with constituents. Most did not feel that they had enough time or opportunity to engage directly with parents and taxpayers. One director suggested a return to public comments throughout the agenda to allow for more interaction with the community.
In terms of feeling welcomed to the board, responses varied greatly. Several of the elections were highly contentious resulting in initial tensions on the newly configured boards. Other directors felt welcomed immediately. Overall, the transition process from candidate to director appears directly related to the level of antagonism throughout the election.
All of the directors stated definitively that they would make the same decision to run for office even knowing what they know now. While some are undecided if they will run again in three years, every director expressed a strong desire to serve their community and support the students, parents, and teachers in their district. Their commitment to serve was articulated clearly and passionately, and students were at the forefront of their decision-making process.
One director summed it up best: “I never previously desired to serve on a school board and have always had a heavy corporate work schedule. I stepped-up to serve in 2021 despite this, solely as a matter of service to my country. I truly believe many of our public schools have lost sight of their purpose, and this is having a crippling impact on all our students and by extension our country. Service to humanity is always the best work of life.”
Thank you to all of the directors who took time from their busy schedules to respond to the questions, but more importantly for stepping up and serving the community and our students. Education is of paramount importance in our country and without high quality, committed school board directors, our public schools are doomed to fail. School board elections will be held again in 2023, and I encourage our readers to get actively involved to support our students, parents, and teachers in the region and across the state.
Wishing you and your families a wonderful holiday season.
Beth Ann Rosica holds a Ph.D. in Education and has dedicated her career advocating on behalf of underserved children and families. She owns a consulting business and lives with her family in West Chester, Pa.