Why school board elections matter and why you should vote

A smiling woman holding two dogs on leashes places her ballot in a drop box outside the La Familia Recreation Center in Denver.
School board elections provide an opportunity for the community to have a say in how local schools are run. (Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images)

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Every other November, Colorado voters choose the people who make important decisions about their local schools. But in most school districts, very few people vote in these school board elections — and most of them aren’t parents of current students. 

What exactly is a school board? And why should you care about voting in these odd-year elections?

In this story:

  • Why do school board elections matter, and should you vote?
  • What does a school board do?
  • Examples of school board responsibilities
  • How is a school board member different from a superintendent or other school administrators?
  • How are school board members chosen in Colorado? 
  • Who do school board members represent?
  • Do school board members in Colorado get paid?
  • How can I learn more about my local school board and the school board candidates?
  • When is the next school board election in Colorado?

Why do school board elections matter, and should you vote?

Voting for school board members who share your values or perspective makes it more likely schools will run in a way that you think is good for kids and your community. If you don’t vote, you give that power to other people. In many school district elections, less than a third of eligible voters vote. Sometimes just a few hundred or even a few dozen votes separate the winners and losers. That means every vote matters.

What does a school board do?

In Colorado, school districts are run by elected officials who serve on the school board. School boards usually have five to seven members. The main function of a school board is hiring the superintendent, who is like the chief executive of the school district and responsible for day-to-day running of local schools. School board members supervise and evaluate the superintendent. School board members also vote on the budget and pay raises for teachers and other staff, and they set policies that control what happens in schools. 

Examples of school board responsibilities

A school board might cast the final vote on whether to close a school with low test scores or too few students — or vote to change budget priorities so those schools have more money. Or a school board might vote to adopt a new curriculum if the old one isn’t working well to educate students.

School boards also have the final say on many contentious issues. If a student is expelled and the family appeals to keep that student in school, or if a teacher is fired and appeals to keep their job, the school board makes the final decision. School boards have voted to opt out of Colorado’s comprehensive sex education standards, to remove police from schools, and to bring police back

Exactly how school boards operate can vary from district to district. For example, in 2020, school boards in some districts voted on whether to move to online learning, while in others, the superintendent made that decision.

How is a school board member different from a superintendent or other school administrator?

School board members don’t typically get involved in the details of running the district. That’s the superintendent’s job. 

School board members can’t discipline a teacher or principal or directly tell them what to do. They don’t set bus routes or decide which routes to cut if there’s a driver shortage. School board members don’t directly pick which schools to close.

In most situations, the superintendent will make a recommendation to the school board. The school board can vote to approve or reject the recommendation or ask for other options.

School board members also can raise awareness about problems and ask for policy changes. If enough board members agree, the superintendent will work on that idea.

How are school board members chosen in Colorado?

Most school board members are elected by the registered voters in that district. 

School board members serve staggered four-year terms. On a five-member board, three of the seats would be up for election one year. Then two years later, the other two seats would open up. The Denver school board has seven members, with four seats open one year and three seats open two years later. 

Most school boards have term limits, so members can’t serve more than eight years total.

School boards always have an odd number of members so they don’t end up with a tie — though ties can still happen if someone skips a meeting or abstains from a vote.

Sometimes a school board member quits in the middle of their term. In that case, the other school board members choose someone to finish the term. 

Sometimes school districts cancel school board elections because there aren’t enough candidates for a contested vote. That saves some money but means voters don’t have a choice in who runs the schools. Whoever volunteered becomes the school board member.

Who do school board members represent?

Some school districts elect school board members at large. That means each school board member represents the entire district, rather than a specific region within it. 

If your district elects members at large, you’ll see all the candidates on the ballot and can vote for as many candidates as there are open seats. If there are two open seats, you can vote for two candidates. If there are three open seats, you can vote for three candidates, and so on. The top vote-getters serve on the school board.

Other school districts are divided into geographical regions, and each school board member represents a region. These school board members have to live in that region. 

In some school districts, only voters who also live in that region get to vote in those school board races. If that’s the case in your district, you’ll see just the candidates for your area on the ballot. You can vote for one candidate, and the top vote-getter will represent that region.

In other school districts, such as Jeffco and Adams 12, school board members have to live in a certain region, but they have to win election districtwide. Every voter in the school district sees multiple school board races on their ballot, and they’ll choose one candidate for each race.

Do school board members in Colorado get paid?

Most Colorado school board members are unpaid volunteers. State law allows school board members to be paid up to $150 a day for official business, and a few school boards, such as Denver and Sheridan, have decided to pay members small stipends. 

A school board that wants to pay its members has to hold a public meeting on the idea and then vote on the pay package. Compensation doesn’t go into effect, though, until after the next election. Current board members can’t vote to pay themselves and would only get paid if they win re-election. 

How can I learn more about my school board and the school board candidates?

News organizations like Chalkbeat write about many school board elections.

Your local newspaper or TV station might have information about candidates. You can check your school district website. Search for the words “school board” or “board meetings” or “election.” Many school districts list who is running and the dates and times of local candidate forums. Community groups like the League of Women Voters and educational nonprofits often host forums or panels where you can hear from the candidates in their own words or even ask them questions. You can also check out candidate websites and see how candidates describe themselves and talk about their priorities.

Read about the candidates or watch how they answer questions. Think about how their views compare with yours or how their life experience might have prepared them. What connection do they have to local schools? What kinds of work have they done? 

At the same time, be aware that school board candidates — like all politicians — sometimes use words that sound good to everyone but can mean different things to different people. If a candidate talks about strong neighborhood schools, listening to parents, or supporting teachers, look for more information about what they mean. 

When is the next school board election?

Colorado school board elections take place in odd-numbered years on the first Tuesday in November. The next election is Nov. 7, 2023. If you’re already a registered voter, look for your ballot in the mail the week of Oct. 16. If you’re not a registered voter, you can find more information about voting here.

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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