Editorial: How to make up your mind in school board races

Residents will head to the polls Tuesday to vote not only on proposed school budgets, but for school board candidates. These are important positions, in that school boards ultimately decide how districts are run.

In the two public school districts in Riverhead Town, 12 candidates are competing for seven open seats, giving voters a significant choice.

Here are some thoughts on what makes an ideal candidate for a Board of Education seat.

Such a candidate will have done his or her homework, gaining the ability to hit the ground running by understanding many of the laws, mandates and formulas that create the framework of a school district’s operating budget. Ideally, he or she will also be familiar with education parlance and legislative language and have displayed command of it during a campaign by effectively translating such language into clear and simple terms.

A school board member should be able to serve as an effective liaison to the public, whose questions and concerns are often met with frustration by boards that don’t quite understand things themselves.

Given the difficult challenge any school board has of keeping taxes and expenses low, the ideal candidate should also be able to communicate effectively with other elected officials. School boards serve as lobbyists for the public, working with state lawmakers to secure funding for their districts — a critical task. The ideal school board member would put the greater public good over his or her own interests and desires.

He or she would also have a strong will and the confidence to stand up to a superintendent when appropriate. Too often, school boards serve as rubber stamps for overzealous administrators. Board members should take their cues from the public, not just from paid employees who, don’t forget, work for the taxpayers. Look for a candidate who speaks strongly, yet not in partisan-charged hyperbole. Those are most likely the people who won’t submit to bullying or put up with obfuscation from administrators — or other board members trying to carry out a superintendent’s will.

Finally, look for balance. Too many former teachers or coaches on a school board could be bad for the bottom line. But too many businesspeople, who may know staffing and budgets but don’t grasp the nuances of what makes a quality education, could be a detriment to kids. Before heading to the polls, examine the real-world experience of this year’s crop of candidates, and consider whether that experience could be of value, and be a good fit, in managing a very complicated operation.