This is a time of change in public education, and the responsibility to deal with this change falls directly on local boards of education. Seeing that each district complies with new laws and meets the community’s expectations for its schools is the job of the school board, the most grass-roots level of government.
Here in New York State there are 697 school districts, and all but three are overseen by non-partisan elected boards of local citizens who serve without pay. School board members are elected as individuals by their communities, but all decision-making is done as a corporate body. As trustees, board members have great authority; as individuals, they have none.
These volunteers model an impressive commitment to their communities’ well being. Most school board members say they are motivated by a desire to give back to their communities. By the time school board members attend board meetings, visit schools, attend programs in their district’s schools, attend training programs, and complete the required reading of materials, reports, and background information, they typically spend a minimum of 500 hours each year on their board responsibilities. Many board members, especially board officers, spend much more than that, well over 1000 hours.
What occupies all those hours? What follows is a brief description of the legal responsibilities of school boards here in New York State. Complying with all the new laws and how boards function will be covered in future blog entries.
Legal obligations of school boards:
The school board is the chief legal entity of the district. The board can enter into legal contracts on behalf of the district. The board can sue and be sued. Each newly elected or reelected board member takes an oath of office that they will comply with all legal obligations that apply to the district. Public education is governed by Education Law as well as Labor Law, General Municipal Law, Real Property Tax Law, Local Finance Law, Public Officers Law, decisions of the Commissioner of Education, and federal law.
School boards have the authority and the obligation to adopt policies for their districts, many of which are required by state and federal law. School boards are primarily policy- making bodies. Well thought out policies make a district work well by providing the guidance the staff needs for many situations. School boards develop policies for the admission, instruction, discipline, grading, and, when appropriate, the classification of students. School boards also must adopt a Code of Conduct for the district and ensure that it is disseminated annually through the district. Additional policies specify many other aspects of district operations.
The school board must hire a superintendent. Hiring a capable superintendent is one of the board’s most important duties. The superintendent will take the board’s policies and then will use them to manage the everyday operation of the district. The superintendent is like the CEO of a district.
School boards receive and then act on superintendent recommendations. Among other things, these include tenure recommendations, negotiated contracts, and the hiring of personnel.
School boards must be responsible stewards of all the district’s assets and property, which constitutes a significant investment of community resources. The school board is responsible for purchasing, leasing, maintaining, and insuring all buildings, properties, equipment, and supplies.
School boards must prepare an operating budget each year and then submit it to the public for a vote to either approve or reject it. Boards in the Big Five districts submit their budgets to their city councils.
School boards must set annual goals and then monitor progress meeting them.
School boards must comply with the Sunshine Laws that require all board meetings to be held in public where anyone can attend and listen. With limited exceptions, all school board discussions about making decisions and the decisions themselves must be made in public. Strict executive session rules limit private discussions to certain personnel matters, issues concerning specific students, and real estate and contract negotiations where a public discussion would weaken the board’s ability to obtain a good result.
School boards act as judges at the final level of local appeals in complaints against the district. Due process rights for someone with a grievance against the district begins at the building level, moves to the superintendent, and finally goes to the board.
In addition, school boards are also authorized to receive and approve charter school applications for schools to be operated within district boundaries and are the only entity that may approve the conversion of one of their existing public schools into a charter school.