Running for School Board or Other Local Office
Problem: Parents are not always seen as key decision makers in the local education scene. In order to shift this mindset, we need to see more parents sitting in leadership roles in their communities. Running for and serving in local office is a great way for parents to influence the direction of their community in a way that best serves their kids and other local families.
Project Description: Sarah has run two successful board of education campaigns, and is currently in her second term on the local school board. She is a very busy full-time working mom of three, and thought this would be impossible when she first contemplated it, but with the right tools and support she realized it can be feasible to run, win, and succeed once in seat. She’d like to share her experience to both inspire other parents and share helpful information about how to make this sustainable.
How the project got started: When Sarah’s oldest son started Kindergarten in her new community of Wheeling, she was shocked by the minimal expectations and lack of opportunities for parent involvement in the school. As a working mom who was often on the road for work-related travel, she found that her only options were a weekly commitment to volunteering at the school in a formal tutoring capacity or joining the PTO to help run parties and fundraisers. She didn’t see a way to bring her talents and interests to help her child’s school. However she became inspired through other members of a national organization that she’s involved in and decided to run for the school board. She raised about $3500 ($10,000 during the second campaign because it was more competitive), and canvassed the streets for about two months before the election. Her friends and family were the biggest volunteer base and many advocates joined her campaign in support of her message for more parent involvement.
4 steps to start this project:
- Be sure to understand the districting and election schedules in your community.
For example, school boards in WV run via their magisterial districts, and the four-year terms begin on a staggered schedule – every two years there are either 2 or 3 seats open on the board. Go to your local elections office and ask to speak with the county clerk to help you understand what district you are in, when a seat would become open in your district, and who from your district is currently in seat. You can also access election records from past years to get a sense of how much money has been raised for similar campaigns in the past, and how many votes it has traditionally taken to win the seat. All of this info is public – you just need to find your sources and start digging in.
- Understand the issues.
You don’t need to be an expert at anything other than your own community to run for office. In other words, don’t feel like you have to know everything about education to run for school board, or county budgeting to run for count commission. In fact, if we had local boards made up of single-subject experts, they would not really be representing the broader community! Instead, focus on making sure you understand the current issues that this elected seat would be tasked to work on. Talk to as many people as you can to learn the landscape, and try to generate a list of 2-3 threats or opportunities that are most important to you and your potential constituents, then learn as much as you can about those things to prepare you to begin your campaign.
- Build your “cabinet.”
You need a ‘home team’ of sorts to help you launch this. Try to identify a group of diverse individuals that have connections that would be helpful as well as areas of expertise that you can tap into as you run and once you start in your seat. You need the person who knows everyone , the person who will have no problem asking for a donation to your campaign, a person who has information and expertise in one or more of your key issues … and the person who will sustain you when things get tough (a spouse, best friend, or family member who will tell it like it is and give you a push or a hug when you need one!) For both of our campaigns, we kicked it off with this core group at our house for dinner and a campaign strategy session. Everyone walked away clear on the issues, the landscape of the campaign, and next steps that they were tasked with . We met 3-4 times during the campaign, but I was in touch with all of them consistently via phone, text and quick coffee meetings.
- Figure out what works best for voters in your community.
For example, I learned from meeting up with a few other local elected officials that this community expects to meet you in person, and won’t be swayed with signs or billboards if they have not shaken your hand (or they don’t know someone who has!) For me, this meant hitting the various neighborhoods in my county – sometimes with one of my kids or my husband in tow- 2-3 days a week for a couple of hours. I pick 4-5 houses on a block, knock on doors, introduce myself and answer any questions they had, then ask them to tell their friends and neighbors about me, and would move on to a new block. This was the most time consuming aspect of my campaign, but also really fun and informative. Talking to these people in their homes is what helped me understand what was most important to them, which influenced the things I focused on once I was on the board. So – what’s the unique thing in your community? Find out and put the majority of your time and resources into that.
What did you learn? I learned a lot about what it means to “govern” at the right altitude, without either micromanaging or being too hands off. I also learned a lot about myself and my leadership when my board went through a very controversial time. It was hard on me, but I came out of it knowing and trusting myself more than ever.
Did you have a “A-Ha or Light Bulb” Moment? One thing that I learned is that once you are in office, you have to be very mindful of how you “show up” in public, on social media, or in any meetings that your body holds. As a school board member, I realized that I really represent our school district (one of the most important organizations in our county) constantly, even if that association wasn’t always on my mind. I also realized that I really needed to get better at recognizing faces and remembering names!
What was the biggest challenge and how did you overcome it? I was shy, and found it painful to have to constantly push myself to shake hands and introduce myself when I was first starting out! Having that “cabinet” of people – especially when it included real connectors – made it so much easier. I’d take someone with me to a steak fry or fund raiser and they would literally work the room with me, introducing me to people and naming that I was running for school board – it took the pressure off of me!
What resources, videos, websites did you use? We really did it on our own. Now there are organizations such as OCOF that hold local candidate trainings, etc – I wish that I had known about this resource when I first ran.
How have you engaged partners in your strategy?
I was sure to include people from all different constituent groups (including the list below) in my “cabinet”, and I also took advantage of natural groups (such as retired teacher associations) to ask if I could come to their events to introduce myself and hear their concerns and questions.