Indiana Daily Student

A Monroe County voters’ guide to what school boards can and can’t do

<p>Bloomington High School South is one of multiple buildings in the Monroe County Community School Corporation. The MCCSC oversees 24 schools across the county.</p>

Bloomington High School South is one of multiple buildings in the Monroe County Community School Corporation. The MCCSC oversees 24 schools across the county.

Monroe County voters will cast their ballots for five different school board seats Nov. 8. Both Monroe County Community School Corporation and Richland-Bean Blossom Community School Corporation have multiple school boards seats up for election this year.  

As controversy has arisen nationwide over critical race theory, school safety and book banning, school board meetings have frequently made headlines. Indiana is no exception to the national trend, with school board meetings across the state heating up — including one instance in which a community member was arrested at a Carmel Clay school board meeting after a gun fell out of his pocket. The Indiana state legislature addressed school board meetings during its 2022 legislative session, passing a law in March requiring school boards to allow public comment at meetings. 

Beyond all the recent media attention, what is a school board? And why should voters care?  

The Indiana Daily Student has compiled what you need to know about school boards before voting:  

What MCCSC and R-BB seats are up for election this year? 

The MCCSC school board includes seven members, with three seats up for election this year. Districts 1, 3 and 7 are up for election in November. 

In District 1, the incumbent is not seeking reelection and there are three candidates seeking election — Erin Wyatt, Tabetha Crouch and Byron Turner. District 3 is the same, with no incumbent but three candidates — Jon Hays, Daniel O’Neill and Ashley Pirani. Shurr is running unopposed for reelection in District 7.  

The R-BB school board is comprised of five members, with two seats up for election this year.  

In the Richland District, incumbent and current board president Dana Kerr competes with Karl Boehm for election. In the Bean Blossom District, incumbent Angela Jacobs is running unopposed.

Related: [Meet the Monroe County candidates for School Board]

How do school board elections work? 

While school board members represent different districts, voters can vote for all school board seats up for their election in their county — not just the school board seat representing their district.  

Elected school board members in Indiana serve four-year terms. However, not all terms run on the same schedule, meaning only a portion of school board seats are up for election at the same time. 

What can school boards do? 

School boards primarily function as a policy-making body for the school corporation. Steve Horton, Indiana School Boards Assocation director of board services, said school boards rarely write the policy themselves, but they verify any proposed policy’s legality and relevance to the school corporation before voting it into effect.  

Other key responsibilities of the board include hiring and firing the superintendent, voting on the superintendent’s recommendation to hire or fire other corporation employees, approving the corporation’s budget and vetting proposed construction projects, MCCSC board president Brandon Shurr said. He also said school boards help hold school corporation administration accountable. 

What can school boards not do?  

School corporations cannot dictate the daily operations of schools; they must remain big picture and stick to overarching policy. While the school board’s policy on things such as curriculum and transportation often impact the daily lives of students and teachers, the school board cannot weigh in on specific instances within schools. Instead, these situations fall under the jurisdiction of the school corporation’s administration.  

“A lot of times people think that we do deal with the day-to-day operations of the school system and that's not our job, that's the MCCSC administration's job,” Shurr said. “We are more to keep them accountable for the things that they are supposed to do. A lot of times people think we're the ones that can hire and fire a basketball coach if they're not happy with them, or we're the people that can make this quick change in this one classroom. That's not what we do. We pull back into the broader view and give the trust to the administration to do those daily things.” 

Horton said one common misconception he sees is people thinking individual school board members hold power. School board members are not politicians, and they can only create change through the group vote, he said.  

“It's probably most important to note that school boards themselves have authority really only when they are in public session and when they vote,” Horton said. “It is the vote that exercises the authority of the school board, within the school corporation. It does not ever rest with an individual member.” 

Are school boards political? 

One thing that distinguishes school boards from other public offices up for election is that school boards, by law, are non-partisan entities. On the ballot, the names of school board candidates will not be denoted with an R or D to signify their political party affiliation.  

“The most effective school boards without a doubt are those that listen well to those around them, including their fellow school board members,” Horton said. “It is hopefully the function of the school board to come together across political lines, to examine data and to work very carefully with their superintendent to make appropriate decisions in a way that is not politically motivated.” 

Related: [MCCSC school board candidates discuss safety, book banning and equity during forum Monday]

What are school board meetings like? 

School board meetings must be public, with at least 48 hour advance notice given to the community. More than three board members cannot meet in private, or it would constitute a violation of this rule.  

The exception to this rule is executive sessions — closed meetings used to conduct board member training to discuss confidential matters such as corporation personnel. The board cannot officially enact policy in executive sessions, they must still vote publicly.  

The laws for school board meetings changed this July when HB 1130 went into effect, mandating school boards to give every member of the public attending a board meeting the opportunity to comment.  

Why do we need school boards? 

As the son of a superintendent, Horton said he saw the influence of school boards while growing up. School boards help guide the decisions of administration by representing the community’s voice, Horton said.  

“It is important for people in the community to have a voice on the school board,” Horton said. “It is important for a superintendent to be able to hear that voice and learn from the school board in order to make decisions that are vetted well and serve that particular community well.”

Related: [A Monroe County voter’s guide to the 2022 MCCSC referendum]

Shurr said school boards are important because they are elected positions within school corporations, thus giving families input on a major aspect of their lives. He pointed out Indiana charter schools do not require elected school boards and can conduct closed-door board meetings, something he appreciates public schools cannot do because the public nature of board meetings creates transparency. 

“We’re not only helping to make decisions; we’re doing it as the voice of the community,” Shurr said. “The people who vote for me will remind me if I’m doing or saying things that don’t seem in line with what they voted me in for. I think it’s really important to have these elected officials that others can keep accountable and can be the voice of the community.” 

Who holds school boards accountable? 

Shurr repeatedly mentioned a key purpose of school boards is to hold administration accountable — but who holds the school boards themselves accountable? The Indiana School Boards Assocation acts as an accountability mechanism of sorts as it provides resources to help school boards understand the legality of their decisions, but the main burden of holding school boards accountable falls on the public. 

“The main accountability is voting people off,” Shurr said. “The other accountability is all of our meetings are held in public. Everything that we do is public, and if a school board decides to do something behind closed doors or something like that, they could get in trouble legally. But overall, I would say elections and public meetings are the biggest form of accountability.” 

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