Hall Pass: Your Ticket to Understanding School Board Politics, Edition #55

Welcome to Hall Pass, a newsletter written to keep you plugged into the conversations driving school board politics and governance.

In today’s edition, you’ll find:

  • On the issues: reactions to the Houston school takeover 
  • Share candidate endorsements with us! 
  • School board filing deadlines, election results, and recall certifications
  • Here’s what COSSBA conference attendees had to say about issues in their districts
  • Florida voters may decide whether to make school board elections partisan
  • Extracurricular: education news from around the web
  • Candidate Connection survey

Reply to this email to share reactions or story ideas!

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.

On the issues: The reactions to the Houston school takeover

In this section, we curate reporting, analysis, and commentary on the issues facing school board members. 

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced on March 15 that the state would take over the Houston Independent School District (HISD). The district’s current school board and superintendent will be replaced with new state appointees. States typically take over school districts when schools repeatedly fail to meet certain performance standards (like average standardized test scores). 

Michael J. Williams writes that the TEA is justified in taking over the HISD. Williams say the schools are not meeting the needs of students and are failing to improve campuses that persistently fail to meet standards. He says the HISD had the chance to make improvements and that now the district needs a new superintendent and board of managers to offer and implement a clearer plan for improvement.

Domingo Morel writes that the TEA’s takeover of the HISD is unjustified because the district has made sufficient progress in meeting standards and resolving problems. Morel says the takeover is politically and racially motivated. He says Houston’s school board offers a political platform to Democrats and people of color and that Republican state officials would rather remove their political opponents and appoint their own managers.

Houston ISD’s takeover was a hard, but necessary decision | Michael J. Williams, The Dallas Morning News

“I wholeheartedly support [Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s] decision, and I believe he will act in the best interest of Houston ISD’s students and families and appoint a local board and a best-in-class superintendent who will give the state’s largest district the kind of jump-start it needs to finally meet the needs of all of Houston’s citizens. The law is clear. The Texas Supreme Court has ruled. Houston ISD voted to lay down in its lawsuit against the Texas Education Agency. Houston ISD failed to improve its most persistently failing campuses for years, and so the TEA is legally obligated to intervene. Houston ISD could have made decisions at any stage of this process that could have resolved this issue, but they chose not to bring in a partner to improve their failing campus. This situation is unfortunate, but it should not be surprising to the district, and it certainly was not unavoidable. Change always comes hard to the most entrenched interests when changes like this are made. I believe the best thing that can happen for Houston ISD now is a clear path forward.”

The state takeover of Houston public schools is about more than school improvement | Domingo Morel, The Conversation

“Although the state has given the Houston Independent School District a B rating, it plans to take over the Houston schools because one school, Wheatley High School, has not made sufficient progress since 2017. According to state law, the state can take over a school district or close a school if it fails to meet standards for five years. … So why would a state take over a school district that has earned a B rating from the state? And why base the takeover on the performance of one school that represents fewer than 1% of the district’s student and teaching population? … Houston, as the largest urban center in Texas, is at the forefront of this challenge to the Republican grip on state power. The Houston schools, in particular, are representative of the state’s demographic and political future. The nine-member Houston school board is reflective of the community it serves. It has three Latinos, four African Americans and two white school board members. This, in my view, is what has put the Houston public school system and school board at the forefront of a battle that is really about race and political power.”

Share candidate endorsements with us! 

As part of our goal to solve the ballot information problem, Ballotpedia is gathering information about school board candidate endorsements. The ballot information gap widens the further down the ballot you go, and is worst for the more than 500,000 local offices nationwide, such as school boards or special districts. Endorsements can help voters know more about their candidates and what they stand for. 

Do you know of an individual or group that has endorsed a candidate in your district? 

Click here to let us know.

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 the more than 13,000 districts with elected school boards.

Election results from the past week

Yesterday, on April 4, voters in Oklahoma and Wisconsin decided general school board elections. Oklahoma and Wisconsin are two of 10 states this year in which we are providing comprehensive coverage of all school board elections. 

While we work to collect results for all 426 races in both states, here is a look at the number of elections and candidates on the ballot in those general elections. We’ll be back next week with some preliminary analysis of these elections. 

  • Voters in Oklahoma decided 134 school board elections in 127 districts. Two-hundred and sixty three candidates ran in those 134 races.
  • Voters in Wisconsin decided 511 school board elections. Those races featured 1,203 candidates. 

Other school board elections

We also covered elections in the following states/districts on April 4:

Here’s what COSSBA conference attendees had to say about issues in their districts

Between March 30 and April 2, school board members from around the country gathered in Tampa, Fla., for the Consortium of State School Boards Association’s (COSSBA) inaugural conference. The conference featured keynote speakers and dozens of workshops and sessions on board leadership, governance, school safety, the First Amendment, and more. 

COSSBA was not the only national school boards association to meet for a conference in Florida. The National School Boards Association (NSBA) held an annual conference in Orlando April 1-3. 

We caught up with school board members at the COSSBA conference in sunny Tampa and asked them about the biggest issues in their districts. Here are snippets from five conversations we had with conference attendees from states across the country. Scroll below for more information on COSSBA. 

We’ll be back in a future edition with more about our visit to COSSBA’s annual conference. 

Nancy Gregory is an at-large member of the Boise School District Board of Trustees in Idaho. She was first elected in 2002 and served as the president of the board from 2014 to 2020.

“We are looking at helping kids, in a focused way, set their own achievement goals. And recognize that if they know what they need to learn, and we tell them the steps that get them there, they do the work—they will accomplish what they need to accomplish. And we’re also trying to think about what a student profile looks like, and what a graduate would say, ‘when I graduate, this is what it means.’ So that every student feels capable and prepared. Our objective is to prepare kids for college, career, and citizenship. So, we are creating pathways of success for them. And that means college bound, that means CTE [career and technical education] career choices, that means into the military or directly into the workforce. We need a literate population to have a successful country and we want our kids to be good citizens.”

Chris Valentine is the president of the Dublin City Schools Board of Education in Ohio. He was first elected to the board in 2003, at the age of 19. He and a few of his fellow Dublin board members, as well as the Dublin City Schools’ superintendent, John Marchhausen, led a workshop at the conference called “Staying in the Center Lane—Leading in Turbulent Times.”

“Our challenges have been navigating the strong extremes from the left and the right, and really coming out of COVID—earning trust back. And it’s not necessarily because we ourselves lost that trust, but because skepticism of government, I think is, at an all time high. And it’s easiest to put that onto your local office holders, especially when it’s issues that are affecting your kids—what’s nearest and dearest to your heart. And people, I think, get most passionate in life oftentimes about their kids. So we’re figuring it out.” 

Blake Bell is the president of Arkadelphia Public Schools Board of Education in Arkansas. 

“More than anything, the problem that we deal with the most is teacher morale, I think, coming out of COVID. It was very hard on our teachers. And it was very hard on teachers because that’s their safe place, that’s their laboratory—their work. That’s their man cave, that’s their comfort zone—the classroom. And when they’re not in the classroom, they felt like they were sleeping on somebody else’s couch, to be honest, and, and they were disconnected. They felt they weren’t able to see their children, they weren’t able to reach out and touch them and really do what they enjoy doing—being with their kids.”

Michelle Watkins is the District 1 representative on the Huntsville City Schools school board in Alabama. She was first elected in 2016. 

“Teachers are leaving in record numbers because of discipline, disrespect, defiance, disruptions. Who comes to school every day to deal with kids that are disrespectful and defiant? And it’s not just in my district—it is throughout the state, our families throughout the US. And we’re going to continue to see our teachers leave the profession in record numbers until we address these issues. And we have to find solutions. Right now, we have restorative practices; we have interventions; we have counseling. But it’s not working. This is a problem at home that the parents are going to have to help us with.”

According to data collected from the COSSBA conference app, school board members from 25 states were registered to attend the conference. That included some school board members from states unaffiliated with COSSBA. 

Background on COSSBA and NSBA

COSSBA was founded in late 2021 and comprises 23 state school board associations. COSSBA describes itself as a “non-partisan, national alliance dedicated to sharing resources and information to support, promote and strengthen state school boards associations as they serve their local school districts and board members.” 

The NSBA was founded in 1940. NSBA says: “Through its member state associations that represent locally elected school board officials serving millions of public school students, NSBA advocates for equity and excellence in public education through school board leadership.”

Between October 2021 and June 2022, 25 state school board associations decided to terminate or not renew membership in the NSBA following the release of a letter the organization sent to President Joe Biden (D) in September 2021. The letter referenced threats and disruptions at school board meetings: “As these acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials have increased, the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.” The NSBA requested federal law enforcement to train and assist school board members on handling the disruptions. 

On Oct. 4, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memorandum in which he directed the FBI and U.S. attorneys to meet within 30 days with leaders in every federal judicial district to discuss “strategies for addressing threats against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff.”

The NSBA later apologized for the letter. Click here to read more about the letter and surrounding events.

Florida voters may decide whether to make school board elections partisan

On March 31, the Florida House of Representatives passed House Joint Resolution 31 (HJR 31), a constitutional amendment that would use partisan elections for seats on the state’s 67 school boards. 

Lawmakers in two other states, Indiana and Kentucky, introduced similar proposals this year, but, unlike Florida’s, neither advanced from their chamber of origin before the necessary deadline.

In Florida, House members approved the measure 79-34, breaking along party lines, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.

If HJR 31 passes the Senate—where Republicans hold a veto-proof majority—the amendment will appear on the 2024 ballot, where it would need at least 60% of the vote to pass. If approved, the amendment would take effect during the 2026 school board elections.

Florida is one of 41 states that hold nonpartisan school board elections where every candidate appears on the same ballot without party labels.

Four states—Alabama, Connecticut, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania—hold partisan school board elections, where candidates can choose to run under a specific party’s label.

The rules vary in Georgia, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Some districts use partisan elections, while others use nonpartisan elections with differences typically based on specific state or local laws.

Click here to read more about the Florida Partisan School Board Elections Amendment.

Extracurricular: education news from around the web

This section contains links to recent education-related articles from around the internet. If you know of a story we should be reading, reply to this email to share it with us! 

Take our Candidate Connection survey to reach voters in your district

Today, we’re looking at responses from Jared Buswell, who ran in the April 4 general election for Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education District 1 in Oklahoma, and Chanda Schwartz, who ran in the April 4 general election for one of four at-large seats on the School District U-46 Board of Education in Illinois. 

Here’s how Buswell answered the question, “What are the main points you want voters to remember about your goals for your time in office?

“I am particularly motivated to serve on the school board to raise students’ enjoyment of learning true knowledge and mastering valuable skills. There is no greater thrill than learning how the world really works beyond one’s initial expectation and to find one’s useful place in it. My passion is seeing parents and teachers succeed in this life-giving process for young people. Lack of quality education ensures the poor become poorer while the rich become richer.

Among the many places in the world where I could serve, I was particularly urged to prioritize Tulsa Public Schools because of the board’s decisions to close the school district to in-person learning for most of a school year. Those decisions – and the choices to not make a comprehensive plan to radically recover from lost learning opportunities – alarmed me to stop other pursuits I was engaged in to serve in this capacity.

Lastly, I am very internally motivated to provide reprieve and opportunity for hard-working educators (both parents and teachers). There are thousands of people diligently serving children every day under unnecessary administrative burdens and/or a lack of resources in the classroom. I am very excited about the prospect of loosening existing resources for more use in the classroom and spreading more decision-making authority to the people who are the most responsible to make those choices. Bringing relief to virtuous people is a cause I’m excited to get up and work for every day.”

Click here to read the rest of Buswell’s answers.

Here’s how Schwartz answered the question, “What are the main points you want voters to remember about your goals for your time in office?

“Mental health and wellness support for all staff and students.

Curriculum that is engaging, innovative, challenging, and culturally representative of our district and prepares students to reach their full potential. Learning loss recovery, closing achievement gaps, and improve student outcomes.

Supporting our strategic plan, the transition of 6th grade to middle school, expansion of Pre-K, and addressing the disparities in our district amongst our aging facilities.

Addressing teacher/staff shortages and working to improve employee satisfaction/engagement.”

Click here to read the rest of Schwartz’s answers.