School board meetings have a reputation for being duller than I-285 in rush-hour traffic. But they’re vitally important: the Atlanta Board of Education alone oversees a $1.4 billion budget and 51,000 students. Recently, here in metro Atlanta and nationwide, some board meetings have also emerged as volatile, political hot spots for angry crowds demanding or opposing mask mandates or pushing back against education about systemic racism.
Several seats on school boards across Georgia are up for grabs in the November election, including all nine seats in the city of Atlanta. Here’s what you need to know about school boards.
What does a school board do, anyway?
There are 180 school boards in Georgia, one for each school district. The boards hire superintendents, approve budgets, fire or suspend employees, and make policies that govern the school system.
They can also renew or expand charter schools—an issue that’s been contentious in Atlanta.
That sounds bureaucratic and boring. Why should I care?
It’s true that, historically, the general public hasn’t taken much interest in school board activities, says Emory political science professor Zachary Peskowitz. But the pandemic has parents paying closer attention. School boards have had to make difficult decisions, such as when to reopen schools to in-person learning and whether or not to implement mask or vaccine mandates. Plus “critical race theory” is suddenly a hot-button issue—and not just to parents of public school kids.
Recent commotion aside, school boards can have influence over what textbooks are used and what courses are taught in schools, as well as the wages and benefits teachers get, Peskowitz says. All that plays a role in a child’s classroom experience and success.
What’s happening in the Atlanta Public Schools elections?
There are 22 candidates for 9 seats. All of the spots are contested, except for School Board District 3 where incumbent Michelle Olympiadis is running unopposed.
Who has more power: school boards or superintendents?
Both school boards and superintendents make big decisions, and who does what comes down to the way the district is set up. For example in September, Decatur Superintendent Maggie Fehman used her own authority to mandate vaccines for school employees.
That said, school boards can terminate or not renew a superintendent’s contract.
The current uproar at some school board meetings seems political. Are school boards partisan?
Some are and some aren’t. Atlanta’s board elections are nonpartisan. But others like Gwinnett and Clayton are partisan, meaning candidates’ party affiliations are on the ballot. Advocates for a partisan system say that voters are armed with more knowledge about the candidates, explains Georgia State University educational leadership professor Kristina Brezicha. Opponents say school boards should focus on education, not politics.
In any case, these days everything feels politicized. So before you vote, it’s important to know what policies school board candidates support and what their visions for public schooling are. Public school students “are ultimately going to be the citizens of our nation,” says Brezicha. “It’s a collective responsibility to be tuned in more.
Voting in the APS board elections? First, find a map of the districts here, then learn out more about the candidates below:
Michelle Olympiadis (incumbent)