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Monday, January 25, 2021

School boards could and should reflect student body

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These are exciting times.

I say that because there’s so much momentum to make change happen in our community. It’s exciting to see so many people taking the baton to move the African American community forward. Not only are we fighting social justice issues, but we are also recognizing our power and we’re determined to use it for the greater good.

This empowerment is evident when you look at school board candidates for school districts around Marion County.

Now, I can’t say for sure that more Black candidates are running for school boards than in past years, but it just feels like it. It certainly feels as if more of us are realizing the influence school boards have in our communities and are deciding to get on board, literally.

It’s no secret that Lawrence, Pike, Warren, Washington and Wayne township school districts are predominately Black and brown and have been for a while. However, the boards that govern these districts usually have been predominately white. There’s a few reasons for the difference, but let’s be honest: Most of us don’t pay much attention to who is on the school board — let alone go to school board meetings.

This isn’t an indictment of anyone in particular. It’s an indictment of all of us. We’ve all dropped the ball when it comes to the school board.

As a former education reporter, I can attest to the lack of parental and community involvement. I covered several districts and attended school board meetings of a district with a large number of Black students as well as districts with few if any Black students. Parents and community members regardless of race or ethnicity weren’t there unless there was a recognition ceremony or a controversial issue. So, it’s not a Black or white thing; none of us are as engaged with the school board as we should be.

However, that seems to be changing, and that’s a wonderful thing.

School boards control a lot of money and wield a lot of power and influence. School boards approve salaries, textbooks, programs, etc. They approve contracts for meal services, vote for capital improvement projects and hire and vote to retain the superintendent. A chunk of your property tax dollars go to your local school district and the school board decides how to spend that money. That’s a quick and simple overview of school funding for the purposes of this column. School funding is way more complicated as there are plenty of rules and regulations in place for how money is spent.

While I won’t say an all-white school board can’t provide good governance to a majority Black student population, I will say representation matters, and when that board is made up of people with a similar culture it makes a difference. There’s an understanding of the needs of the student body that comes with having a similar background.

I also won’t say a majority white school board doesn’t care about the Black students in the district, but just think about textbook adoption for a second. Think about how a Black board member may be much more in tune with certain words that we know have a negative connotation that someone of a different background wouldn’t recognize. Think about how often textbooks give short shrift to Black history or notable Black figures. A school board member could advocate for a better textbook so that all students have a better understanding of the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans. 

But it goes even further than that. Again, representation matters. Think about the influence seeing Black board members has on the student body and surrounding community. Think about the parents who now feel empowered to talk to board members because they know each other. Think about the students who see a model of community involvement. Many of them will naturally emulate that same involvement and impact their community just as those before them did.

Now, with all of that said I need to make it clear that just because more Black people are seeking roles on school boards doesn’t mean they automatically get our vote, or that we don’t hold them accountable if elected. I think most of us know this already, though, but for those who want to infer something negative from this column, I just had to squash it.

So, let’s actually pay attention to our school board candidates this election cycle (and from now on). We have some people in our community who really want to make a difference in the lives of our children.

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