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Behind the Scenes: Understanding School Board Policies

Setting school board policy is a critical task for any local district. It's a process that includes deliberation, consultation and the drafting of new policies or amending existing ones.

School board members are lay people, elected by the community to serve as trustees for a public school system. They oversee issues including schedules, bus routes, supplies and disciplinary measures.

Student Safety

Whether it’s setting education standards, approving curriculum, or ensuring school facilities are safe, student safety is one of the most important issues facing school boards. This means establishing procedures and enforcing protocols before problems arise.

For instance, policies should clearly define what a board intends and expects of district administration. This will help to minimize ambiguity and confusion.

Other areas of concern include attendance policy (including expectations around tardiness), cell phone usage, and club or organization policies. Having knowledge of these issues can allow local citizens to ask the right questions at meetings. It also makes it easier to advocate for the issues that matter most. This can be done by attending school board meetings, submitting questions, or connecting with members on social media.

School Zoning

Setting policy is a school board's primary responsibility. Policies create a framework within which the superintendent and district administrative staff carry out their roles. To do so, boards set, adopt and localize broader district policies, which are often based on state or federal standards.

For example, when drafting school zoning policies, boards must ensure that they do not exclude students with criminal records from living in the neighborhood. This might require engaging in complex conversations around sex offenders, for instance, who are not allowed to live or walk in schools' zones even though they may have served their time.

Despite existing research that highlights the centrality of irregularly shaped attendance zones in rezoning politics, these studies rarely address how race/racism and whiteness shape rezoning narratives. One study quoted a Richmond participant who said that if school rezoning failed to leverage the brief window for interracialism, the city would "end up just like the very segregated place it is today."

Nutrition Guidelines

Under federal rules for school food, districts that participate in child nutrition programs must have local wellness policies. These typically contain nutrition standards for foods sold to students during the school day, including vending machines, student stores and a la carte lines.

Districts often supplement their own nutrition guidelines with procurement policies. These establish the requirements that entities receiving public money must follow when purchasing food and other goods or services, such as giving preference to local or sustainable farmers.

The governing board's nutrition policy may include plans to use the school environment as a context for learning about food, healthy eating habits and the interdependence of social and natural environments. Such policies may also require that food service staff and educators receive professional development in these areas.

Setting Education Standards

School board members are often tasked with materializing the community's vision in education. To do so, they must take a wide range of issues into account, including funding; labor relations; student achievement; teacher evaluations; and academic standards.

Setting national educational standards requires significant time, effort and research to determine what works best in a variety of settings. Proponents of these standards argue that they will narrow academic gaps among students by requiring high academic expectations, criterion-referenced testing, and a consistent measure of proficiency for all.

However, it's important to note that policy-setting is different from regulating, as procedures are executed based on policy guidelines. A clear distinction between these two roles is crucial to avoid confusion. This will also help establish a healthy communication line between school board members, the superintendent and district administration.

Regular District Meetings

By state legislative enactment, school board members are delegated the power to develop policies, rules and regulations that govern all functions of public schools within their district. This includes budgetary decisions, contract negotiations and proposals, disciplinary action guidelines, and long-range goals for the district.

Local school boards are able to make their own policy decisions, but must adhere to federal and state laws and regulations. School board trustees can only commit to actions that are passed by a majority vote at a legally called public meeting.

Occasionally, board members will meet in closed meetings that aren't open to the public to discuss specific agenda items more thoroughly and privately before bringing them up for a vote. School board members are also often assigned to committees and study groups where they can work more extensively on specific issues before coming back to the board.