Advocacy at the intersection of politics and school board service
Wednesday, July 31, 2019
Our recent OSBA Summer Board Conference pushed me to consider school board members’ competing responsibilities. How should politics intersect with the requirements of school board advocacy?
Around 350 school board members and school staff gathered July 19-21 in Bend, a record turnout for the summer gathering. Especially encouraging, more than 100 new board members attended. This notably large gathering of elected officials included two sitting board members who are legislators (Rep. Diego Hernandez and Sen. Rob Wagner), one legislator who is a former school board member (Rep. Cheri Helt) and Gov. Kate Brown, who spoke at a reception celebrating the passage of the Student Success Act.
Brown received a warm welcome from the school board members attending. Considering the county-by-county election results from her 2018 race, the general appreciation was not a given.
About 1.86 million Oregonians voted. Brown beat her closest challenger, Republican Knute Buehler, by more than 100,000 votes, and she received more than half of all votes. It was a clear win for Brown.
Buehler, however, won counties and precincts that overlap the boundaries of most of the school districts in Oregon. Although more people in Oregon voted for Brown, most school board members come from districts that voted against her.
Keynote speaker John Horvick of DHM Research presented revealing polling information, including a slide about “minority” party representation in the Legislature. Minority was a district-specific designation, meaning that a representative or senator affiliated with a given party won in a district that had more registered voters from the opposing major party.
Five districts (only five!) in the 2018 legislative races were won by a person not affiliated with the district’s dominant party, a long fall from the 23 of 1990. It indicates a hardening of the public’s political side-taking.
With Oregon’s government leaning heavily Democratic but most school districts leaning Republican, many school board members find themselves in a difficult position.
Members must balance the views of local voters with their responsibility to work with state government to best serve their students. Board members have a responsibility to advocate on behalf of students, regardless of political differences.
Our recent Oregonians for Student Success campaign supporting the Student Success Act is proof that school board members can be powerful. Legislators have repeatedly said the stories from districts helped push its passage.
It is important to build off that common responsibility in advocacy. School board members will certainly have different viewpoints on political and social issues. Getting past those differences, though, and remembering the real reason for advocacy can deliver tremendous results for the young people of Oregon.