Q: I'm active in my kids' schools. Several people are encouraging me to run for the school board. My husband worries it would be an all-consuming job. What is involved?
A: School board service is demanding. It is also a great way to make a positive contribution to public education.
"It's a chance to better your community and an opportunity for personal growth," says Bruce Capron, a western New York state resident who left an engineering career to become a school administrator as a result of his board service.
School board members I emailed for advice suggest you consider these questions:
-- Do you have time?
While it need not be "all-consuming," board work requires good time-management skills. Most meet monthly, or more often if a special initiative needs oversight. Meeting prep and committee duties add to the commitment.
-- Can you think strategically?
School boards are broadly responsible under state law for providing an education to every student. Their job is to hire and supervise a superintendent, make policy and pass a budget. Board members must think "big picture" about a complex enterprise, says Capron: "Those who represent a narrow political interest at the expense of all others are ineffective."
-- Ready for a steep learning curve?
The most effective board members have a good education, bring their professional skills and abilities to the table, and are willing to learn.
"Board members must quickly get up to speed on myriad topics -- such as using data to boost student achievement; budgeting; construction; union contracts; and technology," says Ray Cortines, a retired superintendent who has worked with school boards in California and New York.
-- Do you like dealing with the public?
If you dislike asking folks for their vote, then don't run. From the get-go, you need to enjoy public engagement, whether gathering signatures for the ballot or involving community members once elected. You have to deal with everyone, even the cranks.
You must be comfortable discussing your views and making decisions in an open forum, says Capron. "And if someone button-holes you at your son's soccer game to talk about a school board matter, it's part of the job."
-- Can you make tough decisions?
You may be faced with hard choices, such as whether to reduce teaching staff or raise taxes, or close an underperforming school. In most states, the school board is the only level of government -- whether local, state or federal -- where elected representatives have to obtain voter approval for the budget every year. The board must show where tax money goes and how it benefits each member of the community, not just those who have kids in school.
-- Do your homework.
Talk with your superintendent, current or former board members, parents and teachers. Ask what they view as the top three challenges facing the district. "If tackling those seems like a worthy challenge -- one you'll enjoy -- enter the race. If not, stay active in your children's school. Either way, you'll make a difference in kids' lives," says Cortines.
Learn more at the National School Boards Association website, nsba.org.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)