School boards, strained by pandemic, politics, have fewer returning members

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Parents and school staff at a Binghamton City School District board meeting in July. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)

As the new school year is about to get underway, it will begin with fewer incumbent school board members. Strife at board meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing politicization of school policies are contributing to the turnover.

New York State School Boards Association spokesman Dave Albert said nearly one-third (30%) of all school board members in the state’s 731 districts chose not to seek reelection in 2022. It’s a change from the average turnover of 20% to 25% in earlier years.

Albert said school boards, like many other things in recent years, have become politically polarized, and many meetings became “contentious.” Many boards faced strong criticism from parents, notably about pandemic-related policies like mask mandates.

“We have seen some consequences from the last couple of years,” Albert said. “I do think that it has pushed some folks to say, ‘I’m going to call it quits.’”

There will be far fewer pandemic-related rules in the upcoming school year, at least for now. Governor Kathy Hochul and the state’s health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, have confirmed that masks will not be required for students or teachers unless a person is directly exposed to someone who has COVID. In those cases, they would need to wear a face covering for five days.

Brief quarantines will be limited to those who test positive for the virus, and no one who is exposed to someone who is sick will have to provide proof of a negative test result in order to return to school.

Hochul recently explained the changes.

“The days of sending an entire classroom home because one person was symptomatic or tests positive, those days are over,” Hochul said last week.

There have also been tense discussions about curriculum and what is — and isn’t — appropriate to teach in the classroom.

Right-leaning groups sponsored school board candidates opposed to the false belief that critical race theory was being taught in schools, but that effort was largely unsuccessful. Critical race theory is an academic framework used in colleges to analyze racism in systems and institutions.

But in addition to many incumbent board members choosing to retire, others were voted out of office during the spring elections. As a result, 45% of board members are new to the job. But Albert said the higher turnover can be a good thing.

“People are starting to realize the importance of school boards,” Albert said.

He said he hopes the renewed interest leads to more people voting in school elections and on school budgets. In most years, just 8% of registered voters go to the polls for school-related votes, compared to 48% who vote in gubernatorial elections. He said that number ticked up slightly in 2022. Albert said school boards take many actions that directly affect families.

“The irony is that, in many cases, the decisions being made by local boards have a greater impact on residents in that community than the federal or state government,” said Albert, who added those issues include curriculum, property taxes, transportation and school nutrition programs.

“There’s a whole host of issues where boards are making very important decisions,” he said.

Albert said he hopes the increased attention will help portray board members, many who aren’t paid for their work, in a more positive light.