If you are a member of Network for Public Education, you already know that public education is under attack. There are those who would like to make democratically elected school boards obsolete. We disagree. We believe that school boards are an essential component of our democracy and are needed to preserve a vibrant public school system.
School board members (sometimes called school trustees) are elected by the community to govern its schools. School boards establish the vision, goals and policies of school districts. They are responsible for the development of the annual budget, ensuring resources are used wisely and in accordance with all state and federal requirements. Essentially, school board members are volunteers on the front lines of the fight to protect public education from aggressive privatization efforts.
We know that conservative organizations such as ALEC are training candidates every year so that the interests of privatizers are represented on boards of education. NPE Action recognizes the need to counter those efforts, and has created this Campaign Toolkit to help public education advocates prepare to run for their local Board of Education.
There is no more direct, local representation than that of a local school board member. We believe that electing more pro-public education school board members will have a lasting effect on communities nationwide, assisting in the struggle to save public education.
Using this Toolkit along with NPE Action’s and NPE’s issue oriented Toolkits, will help candidates prepare to protect and promote public schools.
There are tremendous differences in districts nationwide, therefore not every piece of information here will apply to your particular election. Some school districts are county-wide and have candidates from major political parties, others are small individual districts where candidates declare no party affiliation at all. This guide will focus primarily on those smaller races, but many of the suggestions can be applied to elections at any level.
Because it is important to understand how Board of Education elections are run in your state, at the end of the Toolkit we have provided resources for each state’s Board of Elections, as well as Ballotpedia links where available. Make good use of these resources as you prepare to run for office, and contact your school district to determine the exact timeline of your local election.
Director of the NPE Action School Board Member Network
Deciding to Run
Deciding to run for any elected office is not easy, and the decision should not be taken lightly. Many factors should be carefully considered before committing to a campaign. There are four main questions a candidate needs to be able to answer when declaring their candidacy:
WHY do I want to run for office?
WHEN will I seek election?
HOW will I get the resources, time, volunteers, funding to be successful?
WHO will vote for me, volunteer for me, donate to my campaign?
The question WHY is undoubtedly the most important, and the most personal. Throughout your campaign you will be asked why you’re running by a variety of people in different situations: friends who may think you’re crazy for putting yourself out there, reporters writing an article, Meet the Candidate events, etc. Answering that question succinctly, with conviction is not always easy but it is very important. Here are a few answers that may or may not apply to you:
- The issue of — is extremely important to me, and I want to make a difference.
- I’m not happy with the person currently holding the position
- I’m very qualified and I want to share my talents with the community
- I have the time and energy. I want to give back
- No one has challenged the incumbent in a long time. It is time for a change
- “They” asked me to run (Teacher’s union, colleagues, neighbors, Civic Association)
Often, candidates will say they had been approached for years about running for the Board of Education. Don’t doubt your qualifications. Keep in mind that when multiple people approach you about running for office over a period of time, it is because they see something in you- your passion, drive, knowledge, ability to communicate- and they believe you have what it takes. Be sure to take time to ponder why you want to run, and then craft an answer. Candidates should prepare a short 1 minute answer (the elevator pitch) and a slightly longer version that allows you to expand on issues of importance. Be ready to share this answer over and over: at the post office, the football field bleachers, the grocery store, etc.
The question of WHEN you will seek office seems more straightforward, but there are still several things to consider. Not every potential candidate is ready for the next immediate election. Here are a few responses we hear:
- The very next election cycle
- When my family is ready (kids are older, and/or more independent)
- When I get my life better organized/retire
- After I raise my name recognition in the community
- When I am “drafted” by the local political party
Understand that the timing will never be perfect to run for office. If you wait for everything in your life to be completely calm and organized, it will never happen. Be realistic about your availability and the time you can commit, being careful to balance home life, work, and Board of Education commitments.
Determining HOW you will run for office depends on several factors, including the makeup of the current Board of Education, and state and local election regulations. Some approaches might be:
- I will run as a team with other like-minded candidates
- I will run independently
- I will commit to running the campaign/serving on the BOE full time
- I will work the campaign around my current schedule
- I will run my own campaign
- I will hire/use a volunteer campaign manager/staff
- I will prepare my own campaign materials and position statements
- I will ask for donations and/or host fundraisers
Once you are familiar with the general approach to your local BOE campaigns, the HOW will come into focus clearly. If you are running a large campaign with sponsorship of a major political party, they will likely be helping you with volunteers, media strategies and campaign materials. If you’re running for a smaller district seat, friends and family volunteers will be your primary help.
Be sure you know if your district runs at large or specific seat elections- this information will guide much of your campaign strategy. In at large elections, the candidate receiving the greatest number of votes of all candidates wins the election. If your district election policy requires you to run for a specific seat, you will be running directly against another candidate, and the candidate who receives the greatest number of votes between the two of you wins. In this scenario, there are likely multiple seats and candidates on the ballot, but you are only running directly against one of them.
The next important question WHO, which we can divide into two separate categories.
WHO will help me run?
- My friends and family will volunteer (make a list of those you can count on)
- I will hire paid staff
- The party will raise funds for me
- I will fundraise for myself (make a list of who will donate to your campaign)
You probably have plenty of contacts with talents or connections that would be very helpful to your campaign. Think about what your contacts do for a living, or as a hobby. Do you know anyone who is particularly good with graphic design, Website design or social media outreach? Maybe you have a friend who belongs to a local moms group with lots of participants? Having lots of help from volunteers stretches your budget and expands your outreach.
WHO will vote for me (and WHY)?
- Know the district boundaries
- Groups you’ve worked/volunteered with in the past
- Current BOE members
- Like-minded residents
Once you can answer each of these WHO questions, you are well on your way to establishing a campaign strategy. Thinking all of this through early in the election cycle will be beneficial as you target volunteers and potential voters, and help you to maintain a clear vision of your candidacy. You know why you’re running, now you can share that information so that others understand your motivation and will support you.
Even if you have good name recognition and a positive image in your community, it’s important to pay attention to your image as a candidate. Good candidates will convey confidence, knowledge and organization. Perception is 90% of reality, so they way voters see you is important! A few common sense guidelines to keep in mind at public events:
- Dress appropriately for the event and location
- Be attentive to people speaking, making eye contact
- Be aware of your body language- convey confidence
- Arrive on time
- Disagree respectfully, maintaining calm
- Appear disinterested in what people are saying
- Slouch in your seat, bite nails, or shake your legs nervously
- Be disruptive to other speakers, even if you disagree with them
- Read directly from a written speech
Not everyone is comfortable with public speaking, but if you choose to run for elected office, you need to get used to it. Practice as often as possible with friends and family. Use opportunities at work, or at public meetings to speak in front of groups. Even if your practice subject matter is not campaign related, it will be helpful to increase your comfort level.
Additionally, in this digital age, it is imperative that you are mindful of your presence on social media. Even if you are not using an official campaign account, anything you share on social media can affect your campaign. When using social media you should always:
- Be wary of sharing memes or articles which are unsourced or potentially false
- Choose your words carefully- foul language in a post on social media, or speaking badly about another individual could quickly come back to hurt you
- Choose profile pictures carefully, making sure they represent your image as a candidate
- Use social media as the effective tool it can be: promote your campaign with honesty and integrity, share sourced articles that are relevant to your issues and community
Establishing a Campaign Plan
There are several characteristics of a successful campaign- but preparation is key. We will briefly discuss the areas you should examine and as you develop a campaign plan. A successful campaign will have the right message, going to the right people, at the right time, in a variety of ways. In order to achieve this, you’ve got to do some planning.
Research is critical to running an effective campaign. You won’t need to spend hours at the library reading, but a little bit of research can shape your campaign and keep you focused on the right priorities. Much of the information you should have is accessible online through your local or state Board of Elections and the website Ballotpedia.org, as well as the Central Office of your school district. Find out how many board members sit on your district’s BOE, and how many seats are up for election.
In order to be a qualified candidate, you will need to collect signatures on a petition for your candidacy. The number of signatures required varies, but you will be informed how many you need when you pick up the petition packet. It’s recommended that you obtain more signatures than required just in case any of the signatures on your petition are challenged by an opponent. Be clear about when the petitions are due, because late petitions are not accepted. If they are due by 5:00 PM on Tuesday, don’t try to drop them off at 6:00!
Research important issues in public education at the national, state and local level. You should be able to explain why you are concerned about privatization, charters and vouchers. Show that you have a knowledge base that will be an asset to the community. Make the connection between larger issues and your local schools. If you can explain to people clearly why they should care, and connect the issue to their community, school or children, they will be more likely to vote for you.
Have an understanding of the financial situation of your district. Are there budgetary issues currently? Have there been major expenses the community is unhappy with? Have programs or faculty been cut? If so, why? How does state funding affect the current budget? Has state funding been reduced in recent years? Developing the annual budget is one of the primary responsibilities of a school board, and all candidates should have working knowledge of the current budget situation.
Have a friend contact the school district to FOIL a list of residents and the previous year of actual voters in order to target potential voters who have not voted consistently. It’s important to understand what has happened in past campaigns, and what may have changed since then. It’s also very helpful to have information about your opponents, and their records. This is much easier if they have already run for office.
Understanding your resources will help you prioritize and stay effective. When thinking about your resources, you should be considering:
- Your own strengths: know what you do well
- The people you can count on to volunteer and their strengths: delegate tasks to make the most of their strengths
- Your financial resources- both your own funds and donations if applicable
- Materials and supplies (paper for flyers and handouts, yard signs)
- Media contacts
- Locations for lawn signs (if allowed under local ordinance)
Creating your campaign message is likely the most important step of your campaign plan. Using your motivation to run for the seat will help you shape your message. Assuming this is your first campaign, use your professional and volunteer experience as examples of your accomplishments. If you are running because of an issue that is important to you, that issue should be central to your message. If you’re running because you are unhappy with the current board, use your message to contrast their actions with your plans. The right message will be:
- Clear and easy to understand
- Believable, relevant, and memorable
- Values- based; appealing to the ideals of your community
- Contrasting you with your opponent
There are several approaches to campaign messaging. Understanding your community and the current climate will help you determine the best approach. A few options are:
- Positive messaging: “I can help improve the community/schools by…”
- Issue dominated: “I will fight for your right to opt your children out of state exams…”
- Base messaging: “As a working mother, I understand…”
- Coalition messaging: “When we work together, we can accomplish so much more for the community…”
- Referendum on current BOE/Issue: “We will not let secrecy stand when our community deserves transparency…”
Once you have established your campaign message and approach, you can develop campaign materials. With the use of free programs on your computer, or websites such as www.canva.com, it’s easy to create professional looking flyers and handouts. Be sure that your handouts are easy to read, include a photo of you (or you can add your family), WHY you’re running, and your stance on a couple of issues. Avoid complex issues that require nuanced wording- keep it simple and positive.
Determining your target audience will help you focus on the most likely voters. You’ll need to know about past elections, and understand the climate of the community to determine who you should focus on. You should know:
- How many people typically vote, and the demographics if available
- How many votes are needed to win
- Who might be with you- residents who share your views on issues (Opt Out, etc)
- Who you have the most in common with (young families, local business owners)
- Who will never vote for you (voucher proponents)
Once you’ve determined who your target audience is, you can decide how you will reach them. Voter contact is important in every election. Having good name recognition is helpful, but if your community doesn’t see you or hear from you, they may not associate your name with the issues of importance. Voter contact does not always need to be in person, and doesn’t have to be done solely by the candidate, although direct contact with the candidate is the most effective. Voter contact includes:
- Campaign website or blog
- Social media
- Candidate attending public meetings (especially BOE) and school or community events such as Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce, Elks Lodge, PTA meetings; ask for a few minutes to introduce yourself and offer to answer questions
- Door knocking in neighborhoods- walking door to door to speak directly with voters; this can be done by the candidate and their volunteers
- Visiting local businesses to talk to owners
- Hosting “coffee talk” – announce that you’ll be at a particular location for a set amount of time and encourage residents to come talk with you about their concerns and priorities
- Set up meetings with your elected state officials to discuss education issues- whether they agree with you or not. Share your experience with supporters and potential voters via your website, blog and/or social media accounts. This shows that you are already taking action even before you’ve been elected.
- Media- letters to the editor in local papers, interviews
- Flyers distributed as parents leave school, or at popular neighborhood spots (busy restaurant on a weekend), during kids sporting events (pee wee soccer, t-ball), at local train stations and busy shopping areas
- Mailers- if you have a good budget you can have campaign literature created and mailed to local residents
Compiling a list of supporters and the contact information of those who have responded well to your candidacy will provide you with exactly what you need to ensure they come out to vote on Election Day. Use a simple sign up sheet to collect names, addresses, email addresses and phone numbers so you can follow up with supporters. Include a signup form on your website. Be sure all campaign literature has your campaign contact information, as well as your social media handles and encourage your contacts to follow you. As you meet voters, ask if they will be in town on election day. If they will be away, help them obtain an absentee ballot.
Use the media to your advantage when you can. There are two kinds of media coverage: earned (FREE) and paid. Earned media is all news coverage of your campaign, and can consist of print or digital newspaper articles, radio news stories, press releases, articles or blogs written by the candidate, and websites. Paid media is print, digital, broadcast or mail advertising which has been purchased by the campaign. There are positives to both approaches, and it’s best to take opportunities for both if possible during your campaign.
The main advantage to earned media is that it is free. No cost to the campaign means any funds you have can be spent elsewhere. Additionally, the prevalence of social media now makes it incredibly easy to share any digital media to multiply the effect of your earned media. Free media can be earned by the candidate in a variety of ways:
- Campaign website or blog: having a campaign or candidate controlled website ensures that your message is consistent. An active website should include position papers and the candidate’s biography, as well as a calendar of events. A blog allows the candidate to share information and opinions freely with supporters. All of the facets of a campaign website can be easily shared.
- Press releases: sending press releases to local media in which the candidate shares important information can be helpful for name recognition. A press release must have a purpose, it is not an advertisement. If the candidate participated in an awards ceremony, or was asked to speak to a community group, a press release would be sent after the event with all pertinent information and a photo. A release should be sent to editors or reporters ready to print, so they do not need to edit or follow up for further details. An example is in the resources section of the Toolkit.
- Media alert: a media alert is sent ahead of an event such as a press conference or debate to give the media the opportunity to send a reporter to cover the event. A media alert will include all pertinent information, but no quotes or photos. An example is in the resource section of the Toolkit.
- Connecting with local reporters: having the candidate reach out to local reporters can be very helpful. A candidate should introduce themselves and ensure the reporter knows how to get in touch should they want your opinion on an issue or a quote.
- Don’t shy away from candidate profiles in local papers. These interviews are a great opportunity to get your name and positions out to the community. Be thoughtful in your responses, ensuring your message is clear.
The drawback to earned media is that you cannot control the coverage. A quote could be taken out of context, or your position may be misrepresented. This is not necessarily intentional, but it happens. If you have such an experience, it’s important to contact the reporter to clarify and ask for a printed clarification or retraction.
Paid media’s main impediment is the cost. Often, BOE campaigns are run with little to no budget making this kind of expense difficult, if not impossible. The benefit to paid media is that you can control every iota of your media: any quotes, images or positions come directly from the campaign.
Fundraising and Budgeting
We won’t delve deeply into fundraising and budgeting in this Toolkit, because there are many resources available online to learn about fundraising. Additionally, many school board races are done on shoestring budgets without fundraising. A couple of quick notes and suggestions:
- Familiarize yourself with campaign finance laws of your state: all pertinent information is available to candidates through your local or state Board of Elections.
- Fundraising reports needs to be notarized and submitted at different points during and after the campaign cycle.
- Allowing the opportunity for supporters to donate to your campaign on your website is likely the easiest form of fundraising available to a candidate.
- Remember that you shouldn’t have to spend a lot of money in order to raise money. Don’t arrange for a fancy cocktail party that will require a large expenditure, because that defeats the purpose of the event. Maximize the money you can bring in!
Determining how to spend your campaign funds, whether they are from your own pocket or fundraising, is worthy of careful thought. Using the targets you developed in your campaign plan you can plan where funds need to be spent:
- Name recognition: posters, and palm cards are helpful when trying to increase your name recognition. Try to realistically estimate how many of each you will need throughout your campaign before you purchase any. How many families will be at the soccer field on the weekend? How many people frequent the pizza place Friday night? How many people attend Meet the Candidate events? How many local businesses will put up a poster? Buying in bulk is usually cheaper, but not if you buy two or three times the amount you’ll actually need.
- When ordering lawn signs, it is definitely nice to use a local printer, but if you’re funding is limited, online orders are generally less expensive and faster. Again, think through how many you will really need. Make a list of friends who will place them in their yards, and if you are allowed to place them on major roadways or utility poles, take into account how many you will want to place. Also, if your local ordinance doesn’t allow lawn signs, don’t buy them!
- Bottom line: use campaign funds wisely. Don’t hire any (or extra) staff if it’s not beneficial to the campaign. Be sure that you choose to spend so that you get the most bang for your buck.
Endorsements can be very helpful in a school board race. Many unions (teacher and civil service) will conduct interviews or provide surveys to all candidates to determine which they will endorse, if any. If you are seeking a union endorsement, you should familiarize yourself with the priorities and concerns of the union. Take time to read through their website and ask questions if you need clarification on their position on an issue. When being interviewed or completing a survey, be sure to answer honestly, and do not make the mistake of promising anything. You may be in full agreement with a union on an issue, but as a board member, you will only be one vote. Making promises you cannot fulfill makes you lose credibility.
If you are endorsed by a union, think carefully about how to use the endorsement. If the union is well known and respected in your community, you may want to issue a press release to local media and share the news on social media. Unfortunately, in some communities, unions are vilified by the community and could potentially hurt your candidacy. If that is the case in your community, the union may still be able to endorse you, but instead of offering visible assistance, help behind the scenes. Union members can volunteer to hand out your flyers, call potential voters, or hang signs for you. You will need to work together with the union to determine the best way to utilize the endorsement.
There may be other groups in your community willing to make an endorsement in your race. Do you have a local education advocacy or Opt Out group? Find out if your Chamber of Commerce or Civic Association endorses candidates.
The Final Push
The last few weeks of the campaign will be very busy, and probably exhausting- but keep your eye on the prize! Depending on your district, there may be one or more debate or Meet the Candidates event scheduled leading up to election day. Be sure to prepare, asking friends or family members to pose questions and give you honest feedback.
You’ll want to be visible to the community whenever possible. Attend every district event during the last two weeks, making sure to introduce yourself to potential voters. You should be prepared to give your elevator pitch to encourage them to vote for you!
Ask supporters to send letters to the editor to local newspapers (print and online) explaining why they support you. When they are published, be sure to add the article or link to the campaign website and share it on social media.
You should already know what is allowed in your area in terms of posters and lawn signs. As soon as you’re allowed to get them out, put them up! Some areas are 4 weeks prior to election day, and others are 2 weeks prior. If your community does not allow lawn signs along major roadways, ask friends, family and colleagues to host a lawn sign for you on their own property. Having lawn signs in busy neighborhoods can be even more effective than along the highway or at a shopping center. Lawn signs are a finite resource, so place them thoughtfully throughout your community. If you’re allowed to hang signs on utility poles, be sure to keep a list of their locations so you can remove them after election day. No one likes to see election signs weeks or months post- election.
The weekend leading up to election day is called GOTV weekend in political circles: Get Out The Vote. It’s an all hands on deck approach to getting your name and message out to voters in the final campaign days. You should plan ahead and assign volunteers to help you:
- Hand out your flyers at busy local stores, restaurants
- Make phone calls to supporters to make sure they are prepared to vote- confirm the date and time of the election, as well as their polling place, see if they need a ride to the polls
Election day is very exciting, and stressful. Candidates should be at polling locations throughout the day greeting voters and answering questions. If your district has multiple polling locations, create a schedule for the day to ensure you can visit each one. Volunteers can greet voters on your behalf, and hand out campaign literature. Be sure to observe the regulations prohibiting campaigning within a certain distance of polling locations.
Contact your supporters throughout the day to ensure they’ve already voted or have a plan to get to the polls. Be sure to express your gratitude for their support!
Once the polling place is closed to voters, the votes will be tallied. How quickly you get the results will depend on the size of your district and methodology of counting votes. There’s nothing more you can do, so try to relax and know that you did all that you could during the campaign.
When the results are announced, whether you win or lose, it is important to be gracious. Thank poll workers and congratulate winners. Local media may be present and want to interview you, so be prepared to speak in either case. Share the results on your website and social media accounts, thanking supporters and volunteers.
If you win, you’ll have a short time to celebrate before the real work begins. If your campaign is not successful, you should still be proud that you were willing to take a huge step in running for local elected office. Stay involved, attending school board meetings and consider another election in the future.
Campaign Training Resources
There are not many resources developed specifically for school board elections, which is why NPE Action has created this guide. However, there is a plethora of information available for political campaigns geared to other offices. While these may not be school board specific, there are many suggestions that can be applied to any election at all! As you consider declaring your candidacy and mount your campaign, use these resources to help.
Barbara Lee Family Foundation: http://www.barbaraleefoundation.org/campaign-essentials/
Emily’s List: http://www.emilyslist.org/run-to-win
National Democratic Training Committee: http://www.traindemocrats.org/
Sorensen Institute: https://www.sorenseninstitute.org/programs/candidate-training-program
Vote, Run, Lead : https://voterunlead.org/run-as-you-are-3-part-series/
Women’s Campaign School at Yale: http://www.wcsyale.org/
Still have questions about running for your local school board? Check out our School Election FAQ.
Below you’ll find resources for each state’s Board of Elections, as well as Ballotpedia links where available.
And here is a sample press release and a sample media advisory that you can download and use as templates.