Hall Pass: Your Ticket to Understanding School Board Politics, Edition #3

On the issues

In this section, we curate reporting, analysis, and commentary on the issues school board members deliberate when they set out to offer the best education possible in their district.

The debate over partisan and nonpartisan school board elections

Below, Aaron Churchill, a research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, writes that partisan school board elections would allow voters to make more informed decisions. Churchill says adding party affiliations to ballots for school board candidates would allow voters to easily identify the candidate who aligns with their beliefs, hold school board members accountable, and disrupt the status quo. The Thomas B. Fordman Institute says its mission is to “promote educational excellence for every child in America via quality research, analysis, and commentary, as well as advocacy and exemplary charter school authorizing in Ohio.”

Michael Ford, an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, writes in Governing that while school board members have ideological preferences, school board elections should remain non-partisan. Ford says partisan elections would nationalize elections that should focus on local issues. He also says partisan elections create unnecessary political tensions that impede school boards from doing their normal jobs, which don’t typically involve hot-button partisan issues.

The case for partisan school board elections | Aaron Churchill, The Thomas Fordham Institute

“Moreover, school board elections are also an important form of local accountability and oversight. When citizens are unhappy with the district, they can always voice their dissatisfaction at the ballot box. Yet nonpartisan elections likely weaken accountability because voters don’t know which party is in power and who deserves the boot for acting contrary to their interests. As political scientist Charles Adrian theorized many years ago, nonpartisan elections ‘tend to frustrate protest voting’ as people cannot easily identify which candidates belong to the ‘in’ or ‘out’ group. In other words, it’s hard to shake up the status quo when you can’t figure out who’s part of it. Including party labels in school board elections seems like a commonsense reform that would give voters more information, while also potentially increasing participation and enhancing local accountability.”

Why School Board Elections Should Stay Nonpartisan | Michael Ford, Governing

“So if school board members do have ideological preferences, why keep up the ruse? Well, I think the arguments for reform are missing the point. This issue is not whether a democratic governing body will reflect the political diversity of the electorate — it most certainly will — but whether the structures of our governing institutions impact their performance. The goal of having nonpartisan elections is not to remove all politics from governing, but rather to remove a conflict point that keeps the school board from doing its job. … The work of governing, which includes budgeting, planning, internal policymaking, managing the executive, communicating with the public, etc., is not as exciting as the hot-button partisan issues of the day. But it is the work that ultimately impacts organizational outcomes. That is not to say school boards can or should avoid all hot-button issues, but I fear explicitly partisan elections invite state and federal battles into a local governing context at the expense of truly local issues. To be more blunt, I do not want school boards to become just another venue for nakedly partisan conflict.”

School board update: filing deadlines, election results, and recall certifications

Ballotpedia has historically covered school board elections in about 500 of the country’s largest districts. We’re gradually expanding the number we cover with our eye on all of the roughly 14,000 districts with elected school boards.

States with school board filing deadlines in the next 30 days

  • Texas: The filing deadline for one seat on the Fort Worth Independent School District school board is March 7. The election takes place on May 7, and a runoff, if necessary, is scheduled for June 18.

Upcoming school board elections

Schools in the following states will hold general school board elections on April 5:

  • Arkansas
  • Oklahoma
  • Missouri
  • Wisconsin 

We’ll bring you more on those elections in future editions. 

School board candidates per seat up for election

Within the 114 school board races we are covering whose filing deadlines have passed, an average of 2.62 candidates are running for each seat, down from 2.77 candidates per seat on Feb. 16. This is the most candidates per school board seat since at least 2018.

Partisan school board elections: recent state legislative activity 

Most local school districts in the United States hold nonpartisan school board elections. In 2017, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute estimated that 90% of all school boards held nonpartisan elections. 

Still, partisan school board elections are more common in some states. Louisiana and Pennsylvania require all school districts to hold partisan elections. In Georgia and North Carolina, some districts hold partisan elections while others do not.

Recently, Tennessee joined Georgia and North Carolina in allowing—but not requiring—districts to hold partisan school board elections. Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed HB9072 into law on Nov. 21, 2021. The law, which took effect immediately, says that candidates can run as the representative of a political party if a county party committee “elects to conduct school board elections on a partisan basis.” In districts holding partisan elections, the law says “political parties may elect to nominate a candidate under party rules rather than by primary election.” 

The state House approved the bill 52-39, with 52 Republicans voting in favor, 16 Republicans voting against, and 23 Democrats voting against. The state Senate approved the bill 20-10, with 20 Republicans voting in favor and four Republicans and six Democrats voting against.

Since the start of 2022, state legislators in Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, West Virginia have introduced bills touching on partisan school board elections. All four states have Republican trifectas.  

Georgia — Senate Bill 369

Senate Bill 369, introduced on Jan. 24, would “provide that future elections for members of the board of education shall be nonpartisan” in Gwinnett County. Currently, Gwinnett County school board elections are partisan. The Board is composed of three Democrats and two Republicans, as well as an appointed, nonpartisan superintendent. 

The Georgia House approved the bill 95-61 on Feb. 17. The Senate approved the bill 32-21 on Feb. 2. The bill now goes to Gov. Brian Kemp (R). 

According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “about 40% of Georgia’s 180 school districts hold partisan elections. The rest, using a law that allows for local control, don’t let candidates identify with a political party.” 

Two seats on the Gwinnett County Public Schools school board in Georgia are up for general election on Nov. 8, with a primary scheduled for May 24. 

Indiana — House Bills 1182 & 1240; Senate Bill 0144

Since the start of 2022, state lawmakers have introduced three bills that would either require or allow school board candidates to declare a partisan affiliation. The two House bills—HB 1182 and 1240—were introduced on Jan. 6, while the Senate bill—SB 0144—was introduced on Feb. 4. The three bills are awaiting committee action. 

Both HB 1182 and HB 1240 would require local school board candidates to declare a partisan affiliation. SB 0144 would allow school board candidates to choose to display a partisan affiliation on a ballot. 

South Carolina 

The South Carolina House voted 59-44 to pass House Bill 4800 on Feb. 17. HB 4800 would require school districts in Lancaster County to hold partisan elections. According to the Lancaster News, only two counties in South Carolina require partisan school board elections—Lee and Horry. 

HB 4800 was introduced on Feb. 10. It initially failed in the House, but was brought back up for a vote a week later. The bill now goes to the Senate. Because HB 4800 is considered a local bill, the two Senators representing Lancaster County are the only members of the Senate who need to approve it for it to go to Gov. Henry McMaster’s (R) desk. If McMaster approves it, the bill would take effect in 2024. 

West Virginia — House Joint Resolution 106

House Joint Resolution 106 would amend the West Virginia state constitution to allow local school districts to hold partisan school board elections. Currently, school board candidates are prohibited from listing a partisan affiliation on the ballot. 

HJR 106 was introduced on Feb. 7. The House Education Committee advanced the bill via a voice vote on Feb. 10, and it now heads to the House Judiciary Committee. To refer a constitutional amendment to the ballot, each chamber of the state Legislature must pass the amendment by a two-thirds vote during one legislative session. West Virginia voters would decide the amendment in November. 

State Rep. Ed Evans (D), a member of the House Education Committee, said, “I think the worst thing we can do is interject any of the Washington politics or state politics or county politics, in many cases, into anything that affects kids.” 

State Rep. Margitta Mazzocchi (R), who is also on the House Education Committee, said, “That little letter, R, D, I, whatever, will make it easier to identify what they stand for…I want people to know exactly what they’re getting.” 

Take our Candidate Connection survey to reach voters in your district

Everyone deserves to know their candidates. However, we know it can be hard for voters to find information about their candidates, especially for local offices such as school boards. That’s why we created Candidate Connection—a survey designed to help candidates tell voters about their campaigns, their issues, and so much more. 

In the 2020 election cycle, 4,745 candidates completed the survey. 

If you’re a school board candidate or incumbent, click here to take the survey.

The survey contains over 30 questions, and you can choose the ones you feel will best represent your views to voters. If you complete the survey, a box with your answers will display on your Ballotpedia profile. Your responses will appear in our mobile app, My Vote Ballotpedia.

And if you’re not running for school board, but there is an election in your community this year, share the link with the candidates and urge them to take the survey!