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When You Vote For a School Board, What Are You Voting For?

When voters head to the polls next week they will be tasked with working their way through one of the longest ballots in years.Many of the public offices up for election next week come with recognizable duties, like judges and the mayor—but not all.The school board, for instance, is one of those offices.“I guess they’re supposed to make decisions to benefit the students, I don’t even know,” said Sabrina Corbin, a parent of a JCPS student at Lincoln Elementary, the district’s magnet school for the arts.Related: Why Jefferson County School Board Elections Get Fewer VotesCorbin’s answer is somewhat on track with the responsibilities of a school board, but the duties that go into ensuring decisions are made that benefit students are extensive.For starters, board members must complete some actions in accordance with state law, said Brad Hughes, a spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association.These actions include, among other things, hiring and evaluating a superintendent and board attorney.  Per state law, Hughes said the board also has the final say on district contracts and land purchases, the decision to build schools, determining the school year, adopting a budget and setting annual property tax rates.But within these general requirements are a myriad of other duties, Hughes said.“For example, they set all the policies for the district that the administrators follow, they set the student code of conduct and when there are violations that get appealed up the chain as to whether a child will be expelled or have other disciplinary actions sometimes they will reach up to the school board members,” he said.Hughes said newly elected board members must endure 12 hours of annual training, offered by the state’s school board association.  Board members with more seniority have less hours of required training.Debbie Wesslund has represented JCPS’ District 3 for seven years.  Her district will be on the ballot next week, but she is not seeking reelection. She said the training really helps in understanding the fundamentals of the office, but the most important role of a school board member is not learned in training—and that is to be a voice for the people.“By law, you know, we are there to operate a school system,” she said.  “But we know that the citizens we represent want a great school system, they want their children taken care of, that’s our job to be the go-between between the school system and them.”And being the go-between between constituents and the school district can seem to be overwhelming. With just seven elected school board members, the constituent body of a school board is much larger than what Metro Council members work with.  There are 26 council members.JCPS also has the largest student population in the state, with nearly 100,000 students.  And the $1.4 billion budget is the second largest in the state.Related: Takeaways From the Jefferson County School Board Candidates ForumManaging such a vast district comes at a price, said Steve Imhoff, a former JCPS board member.Imhoff served the Board of Education in Jefferson County for 12 years.  He said at times the role can cut into a career and family time—and the financial rewards that come with the office are meager.“There’s no money in it,” he said.  “I think that’s why people don’t pay much attention to it.”But despite the lack of salary, Imhoff and Wesslund agree that successful, effective board members work overtime.They do much more than attend twice monthly meetings and talk to the media, they said.Wesslund said she represents her constituents at meetings, but the votes she cast reflect an array of communication that takes place well before the Board of Education convenes every other Monday.  And that, she said, is “what takes the time.”“You could just go to board meetings, but to be a really informed board member you have to be involved, you have to, in my view, visit schools, you have to talk to educators, you have to talk to people, you have to listen, a lot.”Wesslund said she spends about 20 hours a week on duties related to the school board—the equivalent of a part time job.  She fields phone calls, responds to emails, contacts district leaders and educates herself on upcoming meeting agenda topics.  She says there is a lot of information to take in and as a school board member, being clueless is not an option.“It’s on your mind all the time,” she said.  “We have to be informed.”JCPS districts 1, 3, 5 and 6 are up for election next week.  District 1 incumbent Diane Porter is running unopposed, but the other races are competitive.For more information about the candidates running for each district, click here, here or here.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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