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How to Storm the School Board in Five Steps

Not so psyched about the management of the K-12 schools in your town? Looking for a surefire way to improve education in your community? Get a seat on the school board. In 2008, 33 year-old Phoenix, Arizona restaurateur, Army veteran, and former 8th grade Teach For America teacher Carl Zaragoza ran and won a close race for a seat on the Creighton Governing Board, one of the city’s local district boards. We caught up with him for his top tips for prepping for a school board run.
1. Know the issues. Do you know the difference between a highly qualified teacher and a highly effective teacher? You better before you decide to run for school board. Make sure you’re well-informed about the educational issues impacting the local, state, and national level, as well as issues in other key areas—like health and public safety—that directly impact schools. “The last thing our schools need is another candidate who doesn’t really know education,” says Zaragoza. “If you don’t know what you’re talking about as far as teacher effectiveness, evaluation, and hiring, how can you propose informed solutions?”
2. Develop a clear, concrete vision. It’s not enough to articulate all the things going wrong in your local schools and talk about change. Voters need to know your action-based vision for how you’ll solve the challenges facing public education in your community. For example, since Zaragoza’s district was one of the lowest-performing in the state with a lack of community investment in schools, he ran on a platform of creating neighborhood-based small schools and ensuring that all students achieved at grade level. “I had to be able to tell the voter specifically why they should vote for me and what changes I was going to fight for,” he says.
3. Chat it up. Even though Zaragoza grew up in Phoenix, he didn’t assume people knew him or his views on education, and he didn’t wait till he ran for office to start talking to people. “The school board is an extension of the community,” he says. “The important thing is to get out there, introduce yourself to people, and talk with them about their education concerns.” Zaragoza visited every single school in his district, talked to parents and teachers, and went door to door in the neighborhoods. As a result, the number of his supporters grew and, he says, “Those people were willing to donate money to my campaign, get out and knock on doors and make phone calls for me. They got me elected.”
4. Look before you leap. It’s important to really understand what the board does. “Depending on where you live, being a board member takes a lot of time, there’s no pay, and you do unglamorous stuff like analyze data,” he says. You have to be ready to deal with bureaucracy, and Zaragoza warns, you also have to be prepared to be unpopular. A few teachers displeased with some of his opinions and votes have even come to his restaurants and heckled him, but he says that’s “a great opportunity to engage them in dialogue about the issues.”
5. Have the right reason. Your job will be to improve the educational futures of students. “Don’t plan to get elected just to use it as a stepping stone to another political office,” Zaragoza says. “Be a board member for the kids. Put your heart into it. That’s what you’re elected for.”

Photo (cc) by Flickr user dave.cournoyer

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