What Do School Boards Do?: This Week’s Book Censorship News, April 15, 2022

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

It continues to be true that school boards have become the new target of right-wing activists, itching for more “parental rights” over curriculum, education, and information access in public schools. Conservatives cheered in Wisconsin as several party-aligned members were ushered into school board seats across the Milwaukee suburbs. In Flagler County, Florida, every candidate for the school board attended an event sponsored by Moms For Liberty to discuss their vision for the role were they to be elected to. In Durham County, North Carolina, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by healthy numbers, the upcoming school board election roster is packed with conservative candidates.

School boards are by design nonpartisan*, so this push for outspoken conservative candidates outlining their political agendas not only disrespects the purpose of boards but it undermines the value that school boards have for ensuring a school is utilizing taxpayer money to represent the whole of a community.

What does a school board do and what are their responsibilities? It’s a little challenging to understand, especially during this era of unrepentant censorship and misinformation campaigns spearheaded by politically aligned candidates who purposefully want to change their purpose.

The history of the school board began when colonizers began holding town hall–style meetings in the first 13 states. School boards look different now, but the purpose is pretty much the same: to provide leadership, vision, and direction to the school and its administration. School boards typically hire the school superintendent and work in tandem with them and the rest of the district’s leadership to update and craft policies and procedures, develop and approve the budget, and evaluate performance. What makes a board unique is that it cannot operate individually; it’s the entire board who makes decisions, and a majority vote is what does or does not pass forth ideas.

In the U.S., school boards typically have between five and nine members, depending on the district’s size and needs. They’re often voted into their positions on rotating schedules, to ensure that new board members work alongside more seasoned ones. You might see three board seats up for election in one year, followed by four seats two years later.

Good boards, in addition to working collaboratively among one another and with the school administration, also hear from the community in which they serve. Let it be emphasized that means the entire community — not just those who are able to show up to a board meeting or coordinate a rally at said board meeting to be loud. Good board members also know they represent a team and not themselves on that board, meaning that board members who go rogue and post board or school business outside official meetings are not only creating a disturbance, but they’re acting unethically.

School boards are not responsible for determining what each educator teaches in their individual classrooms. Many do have oversight on textbooks, but more often than not that’s due to the budget requirements of a significant textbook purchase (and it gives parents their opportunity to review the texts, offer their feedback, and see where their tax money is going — rights they’ve always had). As the Illinois Association of School Boards notes, the difference between a school board and administration is that a school board governs while administration manages. Governing means offering strategic direction; managing means using that direction to create and implement action.

In other words, the school board has no authority on the day-to-day operation of the school. This includes having no say on how educators put free reading materials in their classrooms, how librarians practice collection development according to their already-in-place policies, nor do they have the right to be the people responsible for selecting books in the schools.

Be wary of candidates running on a platform, especially candidates running with the backing of political groups. If you have the interests of your whole community in mind, you don’t need to identify an affiliation in order to run or find support.

Thanks to the help of dozens of volunteers, I’m working on a guide to school boards across the U.S., identifying upcoming elections and board vacancies. If you’ve ever considered volunteering to ensure your school is providing the best it can to your community, give serious thought to getting involved. And if you can’t, remember showing up to meetings matters, as does sending an email to members letting them know what you think should — or should not — be happening in your school. As splashy as it is to donate books to schools facing challenges, for example, that won’t create the sort of long-term change necessary that showing up does. Just look at how right-wing groups have cannibalized meetings across the U.S. so strongly that board candidates are now attending their meetings to pitch themselves for election.

More interested in serving on a library board? That matters, too, and here’s why and how to do it.

*In a small number of states and in some individual counties, boards are partisan. It’s becoming more common as more right-leaning states create new laws that allow counties to choose whether or not to run their board elections with party affiliation.

This Week’s Call to Action

We’re launching a new newsletter dedicated to all things literary activism. These bimonthly newsletters will begin hitting inboxes in May, packed with the stories and calls to action we’re putting together here at Book Riot. Expect censorship roundups as well as news stories that offer ways to put your passion for books and literacy into meaningful action and change.

Click the image below to sign up or click here.

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For more ways to take action against censorship, use this toolkit for how to fight book bans and challenges, as well as this guide to identifying fake news. Then learn how and why you may want to use FOIA to uncover book challenges.

Book Censorship News: April 15, 2022