Why do people run for school board in their local community?

It has never been a more perilous time to be a school board member. When the pandemic began, local school boards bore responsibility for whether to open or close schools, whether or not to require masks. Whichever decision they made, a sizable number of parents were sure to be angry.

School board meetings in some communities became scenes of outrage and heated exchanges. Then came the manufactured claims that schools were rife with “critical race theory” and inappropriate sex education, and school boards were again under fire. Extremists set a goal of seizing control of local school boards, but have been largely unsuccessful. Here and there, a local school board capitulated to or even led the cries for censorship and book banning.

But most local boards have remained steady as a bedrock of grassroots democracy. Ninety-five percent of school districts are governed by an elected school board. Privatizers and disrupters would love to abolish them all and turn the nation’s schools over to corporate management organizations. But as long as there are local school boards, they must stand for re-election and face the voters in their district.

Given the intemperate attacks on public schools, on school boards, and on our democracy, we owe them our thanks for their service to our communities.

Lawrence A. Feinberg wrote the following tribute to local school board members. He is a passionate advocate for public schools, who has served on his local school board in Pennsylvania for 22 years.

He writes:

“The short answer on why people want to run (for school board) these days is because we are out of our . . . minds.” That was my answer back in May of 2011, long before COVID, when the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Anthony Wood asked me why folks would consider seeking school board seats.

I first ran for the school board in 1999, and then five times more because I believe that public education is the foundation of our democracy and that our mission is to create informed American/Global citizens.

Asked a similar question on a League of Women Voters Zoom panel last month, my colleague, friend and former William Penn School District Board President Jennifer Hoff had a clear, concise answer: “the kids.”

Why would anyone want such a thankless, unpaid role? Here area few reasons:

• To get to shake hands with hundreds of graduating seniors who were in kindergarten when I was first elected.

• To hear elementary students speak eloquently and effusively at a public meeting about the character development initiative in their school.

• To read to elementary school students on Read Across America Day.

• To see and hear, year in and year out, innumerable opportunities and accomplishments for and by students in the arts, music, theatre, robotics, culinary arts, industrial arts, medical trades, community service, athletics, countless clubs and activities, student publications and academics.

• To listen to teams of students demonstrate and describe their science experiments.

• To watch our Best Buddies Unified Bocce team (that includes students with and without special needs) in action and to see them get statewide recognition.

• To see students learn to respect and value their similarities and their differences.

• To see our students register their peers to vote.

• To see our graduates move on successfully to college and careers.

• To marvel at the professionalism, dedication, patience and competency of administrators, teachers and support staff and their clear, constant focus on what is best for kids.

There is no denying that the past two years have not been easy for our school communities. For myself and most of my school director peers throughout the state, our attitude has been to assume that everyone has good intentions and wants what is best for their kids, and to treat others with the same level of respect, civility and dignity that we would like to be treated with.

A profound thank you to all Pennsylvania school directors for their dedicated volunteer public service to their students, communities, taxpayers and school districts.

Special thanks to all our superintendents, administrators, and principals, many of whom worked 24/7 throughout the pandemic in the face of immense challenges.

And thanks to all our teachers, aides and all staff – nurses, counselors, social workers, mechanics, bus drivers, custodians, office personnel, food service workers and librarians. Thank you!

Lawrence A. Feinberg is serving his 22nd year as a school director in Haverford Township, Delaware County. Currently board vice president, he served as board president from 2017 through 2021. He has been an active advocate for public education at the local, regional, state and federal levels.

This commentary was first published by the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.