Keith Bray Portrait

legal insights

by Keith Bray

Hear that? Your local community needs you


ince the first school board met in Boston in 1712, individuals serving their community on school boards have been a beacon of public service. Being a public servant means committing time out of one’s personal life, work life, home life and spiritual life to serve others.

Those who serve in public education do it for many reasons: they have kids in the schools, they are current and former educators or administrators, they want to serve the best interests of children, and most importantly, they just want to give something back to the community they live in. With monthly stipends permitted in Education Code § 35120 that range from $60 to $2,000 depending upon the size of the district, they don’t do it for the money. Bottom line? Some 300 years after the first meeting was convened, school board members continue this distinguished record of public service in order to provide students with the foundation necessary to strengthen and participate in our hard-fought-for democracy.

But now, during this time in America when our political divisions and distrust of public servants are being expressed in so many ways, board members are being confronted with behavior at their meetings, on the sidewalk in front of their homes, and on social media that was unimaginable just a few years ago. Being called criminals, child abusers, Marxists and yes, even traitors by those who disagree. Whoever would have thought these nouns would be used to describe a school board member?

Threats of physical harm have been made against board members, superintendents, principals and their families, who along with public health directors and elected officials, have become to some unworthy examples of public servants and incapable of holding public office. Board members have also become the target of an unprecedented number of recall campaigns, and resignations by board members are on the rise.

Lady doing a presentation
Those who serve in public education do it for many reasons: they have kids in the schools, they are current and former educators or administrators, they want to serve the best interests of children, and most importantly, they just want to give something back to the community they live in.
Why the exodus? Because many need a mental health break from the pressure to govern effectively under such difficult circumstances. To start, we have only just begun the third year under a state of emergency where school boards have become the receptacle of vocal opposition to statewide mandates they may not personally support but must implement, consistent with their sworn oath of office. When there are statewide requirements like wearing masks to attend school, or a vaccination or weekly testing to work at school site, the pressure to follow rule of law, despite one’s own personal sentiments or beliefs, and despite a member’s own knowledge and experience with the local conditions in their community, has for some become untenable. And for those who have favored implementing the mandates or even doing more, resignations have occurred in response to the mental and emotional strain caused by the aggressive nature of the personal attacks.

Why leave now? Because public comment and behavior during board meetings at times has gone off the rails. Passionate and vociferous expression is one thing, but speech and conduct that aims to demean, humiliate and threaten, and even stop a meeting from continuing, is quite another. School board meetings, instead of being an accessible forum for constitutionally protected speech and expression where the public can readily provide input to the board, have been disrupted by those who turn their backs on the board to address the audience instead, and by those seeking to rally a virtual audience either in real time or later in a post on social media. Faced with the prospect of politically driven issues like student vaccines and critical race theory not being resolved any time soon, board members are brushing up on their parliamentary skills by attending virtual trainings organized by CSBA’s Regional Directors and PACERs [Public Affairs and Community Engagement Representatives] so they can become better equipped to handle the chaos occurring in boards rooms up and down the state.

People in a meeting
What to do? Continue your public service. Please do not give up now. Your experience is needed. A recent survey conducted by CSBA’s Member Services Department revealed that close to 40 percent of California’s school board members are in their first term. Thousands of sitting board members will thus have to decide this summer whether to continue their public service by filing nomination papers to serve another term and by finding the time to campaign.

For those of you who have already decided to take the plunge and run, now is the time to start organizing your supporters and brushing up on your skills as a campaigner. This may mean taking a deeper dive to develop or increase your presence on social media. It may also mean beginning to plan, if you end up in a contested race, how you will raise the funds needed to hire a media consultant to help get your message out and/or a consultant to help manage your campaign. Finally, it’s a good time to refresh your understanding of the rules around campaigning, especially the prohibition against the use of district resources for political purposes.

Whatever strategies you begin developing as you prepare for the general election, and whatever campaign you decide to run, know full well that experienced and effective public servants are pretty hard to come by these days. However, giving back to your community during these past four years should be seen as a positive by voters and make a difference to them when they decide just what kind of public servant they want serving on their local school board.

Keith Bray is CSBA general counsel and chief of staff

Please note that the information provided here by CSBA is for informational purposes and is not legal advice. Please contact your district or county office of education’s legal counsel for legal questions related to this information.