With local elections around the corner, WFDD listener Valerie Brockenbrough wrote in to Carolina Curious asking what the role of the school board really is.
Brockenbrough is active in local politics and, as a parent, is particularly interested in the school board.
“I’m a mom of three kids,” she says. “One is currently a freshman at Reynolds High School, and I have two kids in college who attended Reynolds and Atkins High School.”
She thinks it’s important for people to understand the function of the school board when it comes time to vote.
WFDD’s Amy Diaz set out to dig into the topic, looking through the lens of Forsyth County.
The function of a school board
Dani Parker Moore is the director of the Schools, Education and Society minor at Wake Forest University, which is a program that looks at education policies and laws. She explains how local school boards fit into the wider education system.
“So school boards are actually really, really important. So the way we think about it is we have our Department of Education from the federal government,” she says. “We have usually your state education — so in North Carolina, it’s the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction — and then each kind of school district has a school board.”
In Forsyth County, the board of education is made up of nine members elected to four-year terms with no term limits. There are two seats for District 1, four seats for District 2, and three at-large seats. It’s a similar setup in other counties.
Elisabeth Motsinger and Marilyn Parker both serve on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education and aren’t running for re-election. Motsinger has been on the board for 16 years, and Parker for 21. The two board members, with decades of experience between them, broke down some of the main responsibilities of the board.
“I think if you want the one-sentence answer, it’s that we set policy for the school system,” Parker says. “You set policy for students, you set policy for staff, you set policy for finances, for rules.”
In addition to setting policy, she says the school board has the final say on things like curriculum, when school starts and stops, how many runs each bus is going to make, and what the school calendar looks like.
Motsinger says the other big role of the school board is to hire the superintendent.
“That is the one and only direct hire that the board makes,” Motsinger says. “We discuss in closed session other employee picks that the superintendent makes, but the board does not hire other employees. The board hires the superintendent.”
She says that while the board sets policies, the superintendent is the person who really enacts them in the district. But they all operate within the requirements and guidelines defined by the state.
To understand the dynamic between the state and district, Parker started with the topic of pay.
“The state sets all salaries. So any additional money that anyone in our district gets is supplemental from our district, and that varies from district to district,” she says. “But you know, the only thing we can raise is a teacher supplement. We can't raise their base pay.”
Parker Moore, from Wake Forest University, says those supplements can make a big difference for some. She gave the example of a person looking for a job as a first-grade teacher who finds openings in multiple counties.
“You know, a $5,000 difference between county to county, that really influences where you're going to go work or where you'll apply, right?” Parker Moore says.
But the school board can’t generate its own money. Instead, funding comes from either the federal, state, or local levels. Motsinger says that money comes with specific designations.
“Most pots of money you get are labeled already. This pot is for professional development. This pot is for teacher pay, principal pay, whomever pay,” Motsinger says. “You can't change the pots. You can't say ‘Well, instead of getting those new school buses, I would rather, we buy balloons for all the games.’”
What's the board's role when it comes to the curriculum?
It’s kind of a similar situation for the curriculum. In North Carolina, it's set by the Department of Public Instruction. Motsinger says that the state dictates what must be covered – like English or Algebra. But how exactly it’s covered can change in each district.
“We can decide that we care about certain aspects and that we want to make sure they're touched on,” she says. “But we can't just rewrite curriculum willy-nilly. We can't say we've just gotten rid of second grade in our district.”
But the board can have some impact on the curriculum. Here’s what that might look like.
“For instance, reading. You have guiding principles of things that have to be accomplished within each grade,” Parker says. “Now, which reading program that we as a district choose to accomplish those goals, exactly what Elisabeth said, that is up to us.”
Motsinger says she and another board member served on a committee looking at sex education. That curriculum was required by the state, but they did get their say on which movie the district would use to teach about birth control. As it turns out, they weren’t happy with any of the options available and had their own movie made.
Parker Moore brought up another example in Forsyth County. In 2019, the board of education voted 7-1 against making an African American studies course a requirement in high school.
“They had experts, they had parents, they had students that were saying this because you have to understand there's a lack of kind of cultural awareness. And so the idea was that if they had this requirement for students, then that would help,” Parker Moore says. “And then they did not vote for that. And so that was a curriculum choice. And so they have that kind of power to decide that.”
Instead, the board of education unanimously voted to expand an existing multicultural infusion program, teaching history from multiple perspectives. So they added a requirement for the district that the state doesn’t have. But Parker says that wouldn’t work the other way around.
“There’s required courses. Now, we as a district could say we put another required course in past the state,” Parker notes. “But we can’t say, we’re gonna get rid of this one and put one of ours in.”
Essentially, the district can add to what the state requires, but can’t take away.
In Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, school board races are partisan, though it’s not that way everywhere. Motsinger is a democrat and Parker is a republican, but both say board members shouldn’t come with a hyper-political or partisan agenda.
“The agenda should be how do we provide the very best, highest quality education to meet the needs of all of our students,” Motsinger says. “And it's a large and diverse student body, and making sure that we're staying focused on meeting all their needs, is a really important job.”
Though it isn’t a job requirement, Parker says — and Motsinger agrees — that candidates running for school board should consider devoting some time to actually going to schools and seeing the work district staff is doing.
“Because that’s really the only way that you’re gonna know what goes on with curriculum, what all the different jobs that you are going to vote on a supplement for or whatever, what all of those things are about,” Parker says. “You need to see and be in the work a little bit to really understand what you’re voting on.”
In Forsyth County, there are 14 candidates running for the school board. Early voting begins on October 20, and election day is November 8. The elected board members will take the oath of office in December.
Amy Diaz covers education for WFDD in partnership with Report For America. You can follow her on Twitter at @amydiaze.