Help wanted: Consider BOE candidacy


Raymond R. Wiss

I f schools boards ran help-wanted advertisements, they might read like this:

Wanted: Citizens who are dedicated and hardworking, have a strong sense of ethics, are willing to learn and ask questions, and can communicate with and work well with others. Applicants must be willing to represent the interests of the children and the taxpayers in his or her community.

A few weeks ago, the New Jersey School Boards Association polled the readers of its weekly publication and asked them what it takes to be an effective school board member. The qualities cited in the help-wanted ad above were among the most frequent responses, along with characteristics such as a willingness to debate tough issues honestly and the ability to listen.

This year, more than 1,500 local board of education positions will be on the ballot statewide in the April 27 annual school election. With a March 8 deadline for submitting nominations, the time to think about school board candidacy is now.

Why is the school board election significant to New Jerseyans? New Jersey’s 4,800 unpaid local board of education members — the largest group of elected officials in the state — are responsible for decisions that affect the operation of more than 2,400 public schools and the education of 1.37 million children. Local boards of education set the policies under which school districts operate — decisions concerning curriculum, personnel and the use of school buildings. They select and evaluate the administrators who manage our public schools. They make decisions that affect the expenditure of billions of dollars of public funds statewide. It’s a role of enormous importance, one that is vital to the quality of life in our state. It’s also a position that cannot be taken lightly.

The goals and issues facing public school districts in 2011 — meeting state and federal education standards, increasing student achievement, negotiating with employees in tight financial times — command the commitment, energy and involvement of anyone chosen to serve on their local school board. It’s not a job for everyone. However, if you find satisfaction in serving your community and have a sincere interest in the well-being of the community’s children, as well as the necessary time and energy, school board membership can be a rewarding endeavor. I urge you to consider it.

During my 17 years of school board service, people have often asked me what is involved in board of education membership and running for school board office. Here are answers to some of the frequently asked questions.

What does the school board do? The local board of education establishes policies that guide the operation of the schools in areas such as instruction, personnel, facilities management and community relations. The school board sets the goals that reflect the community’s desires for its schools.

Each year, the board must also evaluate the superintendent. It approves the proposed budget for submission to voters, oversees spending, approves the curriculum, and represents the public in contract negotiations.

All of these responsibilities have an impact on student achievement — theNo. 1 issue that school boards are dealing with today, according to a recent nationwide survey by the National School Boards Association .

What are the qualifications for school board membership?

State law requires a school board member to be a registered voter who has lived in the district for at least one year. Board members must be able to read and write, and they cannot have a claim against or contract with the school district.

In addition to statutory requirements, successful school board membership also requires strong interpersonal skills. Being diplomatic and an effective communicator are essential qualities. Board members must also be willing to listen to various sides of an issue; they should be able to take criticism; and they must be able to make and defend what may be unpopular decisions.

The ability to learn and grasp new concepts cannot be overestimated. In New Jersey, school board membership is based on the concept of “lay” control. That means that school board members are not expected to take office knowing the intricacies of the negotiations process or school law. But they will have to make decisions involving these and other areas. That’s why openness to learning is essential.

(To prospective school board candidates: Don’t worry! If elected, you won’t enter the job unprepared. The New Jersey School Boards Association makes available a full roster of training programs addressing the basic responsibilities of school board membership, as well as specialized training in policy-making, community relations, labor relations and school law. The Association also provides on-site and telephone consultation.)

If elected, how much time would I need to commit? Among respondents to an NJSBA survey conducted in October, over 46 percent devoted 11 to 25 hours per month to board of education responsibilities. Another 28.4 percent said they spent 26 to 50 hours on board-related work. New Jersey board members’ responses were in line with earlier nationwide surveys by the National School BoardsAssociation.

Clearly, effective school board membership involves more than just attending amonthlymeeting. Board membership can include work on subcommittees and attendance at school functions, as well as other matters. It also requires reading agenda items, reports and other important materials. Board members also take the time to reach out to their representatives in Trenton and Washington, D.C., to address legislation that would have an impact on their communities’ schoolchildren.

How can I learn more about school board candidacy? The New Jersey School Boards Association publishes a School Board Candidate Kit for interested citizens. The kit includes a sample nominating petition, information on the requirements for school board candidacy, and a calendar of important dates in the school election process. It also provides information about the New Jersey School Ethics Act. You may download the information from NJSBA’s website, at

In addition, the state’s county school boards associations will offer briefing sessions for school board candidates during the month of March. The sessions, held in three regions of the state, will provide information on the roles and responsibilities of school board members.

When is the deadline for filing for school candidacy? For 2011, the deadline for filing for school board candidacy will be Tuesday, March 8. The non-partisan annual school election will take place on Wednesday, April 27. I urge qualified citizens to consider taking on the critical role of school board membership.

Raymond R. Wiss is president of the New Jersey School Boards Association in Trenton.