It's election season and on November 6 Wyomingites will have the chance to participate in what's arguably the most local election of all: for the local school board. Caroline Ballard sat down with education reporter Tennessee Watson to discuss some of the hot topics in school board races across the state.
Caroline Ballard: Can you start with the basics of what a school board does?
Tennessee Watson: So the school board is the legal entity that's charged with governing a school district. And it's their responsibility to make sure that school districts run efficiently and effectively. They oversee the budget. So they sign off on how money is spent and they make sure that public funds are being used to adequately serve kids. So they're going to look at school conditions. They're going to look at student achievement. They're going to make sure that students have the resources that they need to do the best that they can.
They also provide a bridge between the local community and district administrators. So they take input from their community and they sort of help to set the course that the district is going to take. And in Wyoming which favors local control, districts have a lot of say.
And they're also advocates. They're in a position to be proactive about issues that impact their district. So that could mean engaging with town and county officials or even traveling to Cheyenne to engage with state legislators. So they're really bringing the concerns of their local district and they're connecting it to all these different levels.
And I think that's one of the questions for me that often is overlooked: How do they see that role as an advocate? Are they engaged with local politics? Are they talking to county commissioners? Are they willing to get in the car and drive to Cheyenne? And how are they thinking about how they're going to engage with politics at all of these different levels?
CB: What about at the school district level, what are some key issues that we're seeing across the state?
TW: I think a really important conversation right now is school safety and security. And school boards are empowered in Wyoming to help define their districts' approach to this issue. It's gotten a lot of attention because now school districts can decide whether teachers and staff can conceal carry. But there's also a lot of other ways that they can look at this issue. Are candidates thinking about outside intrusion? Are they also thinking about personal safety within school? Are they thinking about bullying and mental health and suicide? So voters could suss out whether candidates are really pushing a singular solution or if they're taking a more holistic approach.
CB: Another race happening beside school board races this year is the governor's race, and in debates for the gubernatorial election education issues are coming up a lot. We've heard about K-12's role in teaching technical skills that help prepare students to enter the workforce. How are school boards factoring into that conversation?
TW: Career and technical education — or CTE — has been a really hot topic. And school boards do have the potential to influence this. There are schools in more populated parts of the state that can tap into local resources and offer a variety of CTE courses from welding to automotive to culinary arts to agriculture. But for more remote and less urban districts those options could be more limited. And in those places the school board plays an important role in building a bridge to local community resources. But also they have to make a choice, they help set the priorities and that means reaching out to local employers to figure out what skills are most useful. It also requires some future visioning about where is our local economy going and how can our students play a role in that transition. So that's a pretty exciting and important conversation that school board members can play a role in facilitating.
CB: Sort of on the other end of K-12, there's been a lot of discussion about early childhood and pre-K. How is that coming in?
TW: Well I think folks are thinking about whether this needs to be implemented across the state. And sometimes it's thought of as a statewide issue. You know, is the state going to take action? Will they provide funding for this to happen in every community? In the meantime, if this is something that districts value there are some creative things that they can do on the local level. If a district is part of what's called a Board of Cooperative Education Services — or a BOCES — then the school board can levy mills for additional educational resources. And that means that they could get extra special education services but they could also use that money through BOCES for early childhood education. And we've seen at least one school district do that.
So a lot of creative stuff can happen at the local level but that means that school board members really need to understand how education policy and budgeting works. The more that they understand the system the more creative they can be about getting resources for their community.
CB: Is there an issue that you Tennessee Watson are particularly excited to watch?
TW: I think given the prevalence of conversations about sexual violence in the context of the MeToo movement I am interested to see what school districts do about that across the state. Studies say that kids 7 to 13 are the most vulnerable to abuse. During the 2018 session, the legislature passed Senate File 93 which allows school districts to implement sexual abuse prevention and education. It's sort of an invitation from policymakers to school districts. So I'm interested this year to see if school districts pick that up; if there are any candidates coming in that are particularly interested in that issue.