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The Indiana Department of Education has updated its guidelines to help school officials and parents decide how schools can reopen safely during the coronavirus pandemic.

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The outcome of the upcoming election will determine many of the people who are setting the tone for the state’s schools.

While school boards and their members aren’t involved in the day-to-day operations of a school, they are the ones who decide the policies and provide the oversight of the district.

Boards are “accountable for everything but manage nothing,” said Michael Adamson, director of board services for the Indiana School Boards Association. 

In Indiana, a majority of the public school districts have members who are elected to four-year terms.

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Here’s what to know about school boards before heading to the polls:

What does a school board do?

School boards oversee their school district to make sure that the district policies are implemented and bills are paid, Adamson said.

Boards are the ones that create a district’s policies, he said, so if there’s something wrong with the policy, that’s on the board.

Other responsibilities of the school board include providing educational programs as well as transportation and meals for students, overseeing the district’s budget and paying the bills, approving personnel decisions, and making decisions about construction and buildings.

Home rule authority also allows school boards to also add additional powers as long as they aren’t against the law or already the job of another agency. For example, Adamson said a board can decide to pay moving expenses for a new superintendent.

What does a school board not do?

It’s not the job of the school board to manage the day-to-day in the district, that’s on the superintendent and their staff, Adamson said. 

It’s not up to a board to hire or fire school staff, that’s the job of administrators, he added. However, boards do approve personnel decisions.  

The room where Hamilton Southeastern Schools board meets inside the administration building in Fishers. (Photo: Emma Kate Fittes)

What is the board’s role in COVID-19 planning?

When it comes to districts’ response to COVID-19, Adamson said school boards’ responses have varied, largely because there is no clear guideline of how to conduct a school in a pandemic.

While boards still need to fulfill all of their responsibilities during a pandemic, things like paying the bills as well as providing educational programs and transportation look different.

Some school boards have relied on their superintendents to take the lead and figure out adjustments, while others have passed resolutions to become more involved in areas such as deciding if students will have the option to attend in-person and when.

What are the rules for a school board meeting?

Except for executive sessions, school board meetings must be public meetings and boards must give 48 hours notice to the public.

While the public must be allowed at meetings, public comment is not a requirement. However, boards typically include time for public comment in their regular meeting.

Executive sessions are closed meetings that boards can have to discuss things such as school safety, personnel and confidential records as well as do board training. Those meetings are typically when members will ask questions about new hires before voting on personnel during a regular meeting.

How many people are on a school board and who do they represent?

The number of board members varies across the state from as small as three members to as large as nine, but a majority of districts have five or seven members on their school board, Adamson said.

For example, Indianapolis Public Schools and Hamilton Southeastern Schools have seven-member boards while Carmel Clay Schools and Zionsville Community Schools have five members on their boards.

Board members can either represent a specific township — and be required to live in that township of the school district — or be an at-large member who can live anywhere within the district boundaries. 

Some boards have one type of member or a mix, Adamson said, it all depends on what rules are set in the election plan.

Are all school boards elected?

While most school boards in Indiana are elected, there are some, roughly 10 statewide, where members are appointed. One example is Speedway Schools which has members that are appointed by the town board.

There are also a few that have a mix of appointed and elected members.

What is the job of a school board member?

School board members are elected to take care of the business of the district at board meetings and need to be prepared for those meetings, Adamson said.

And while they are elected officials, school board members can only make district decisions as part of the board and can’t make decisions for the district as an individual member. 

What about interacting with the public?

Community members can reach out to school board members and speak during the public comment section of a meeting. During public comment, board members listen but are not required to respond.

Adamson added that board members don’t always have all the answers for the community and can serve as a connector to make sure the community member reaches out to the district employee who can address the complaint.

And it’s community members who vote for and elect school boards.

Do school board members get paid?

Being a school board member is not a full-time job and members can have a variety of occupations. However, many districts in Indiana do pay their school board members. 

Per state law, each member can receive up to $2,000 a year as well as meeting stipends that are a maximum of $112 per regular meeting and $62 for a special meeting, Adamson said.

How do I know who’s on the board and who is running?

Go do your school district’s website to find out who the current board members are as well as find meeting schedules and agendas.

Check your county election board’s website to see if you can get a sample ballot to see who candidates are at indianavoters.in.gov/CountyContact/Index.

Call IndyStar education reporter MJ Slaby at 317-447-1586 or email her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @mjslaby.

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