Election 2023

Minnesota school boards and their powers: 3 key questions, answered

A wide shot of a room with seated people.
The Rochester Public Library hosted candidates for Rochester school board position 6 in 2022 with a forum organized by the League of Women Voters.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

Elected school boards are at the top of the accountability chain in Minnesota school districts, overseeing school administration, curriculum and governance. Minnesota voters are set to fill more than 100 open school board seats on Nov. 7 in districts across the state. 

But how much power do school boards have and what does a school board member’s job entail? 

1) What is a school board?

According to Minnesota statute school boards are made up of six to seven residents who have the authority “to govern, manage, and control the district.”

They “represent the community in the community or school district in which they live, and also help set a vision and or direction for the school district based on the needs of the community,” said Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association.

On a practical level, Schneidawind said, school boards are called on to:

  • Hire a superintendent to help implement a vision and mission for the school district

  • Set a budget that lines up with that mission

  • Establish, enact and adopt policy for the school district, faculty and staff

That last responsibility is the most challenging, Schneidawind said. Boards adopt policies that guide attendance rules, discipline and employment. They must also keep a finger on the pulse of the community, as they’re accountable to voters.

“We pass the policy at the board table and adopt the policy that is in our legislative capacity, and then the school board has oversight for all of the staff in the district. We manage that oversight through the superintendent,” said Helen Bassett, a 21-year member and current chair of the Robbinsdale school board.

“I think one of the biggest challenges to school board members is that you do have a great deal of power and authority,” said Bassett. “Understanding how to use it and how to apply it is as important as the power itself.”

2) How much power does a school board have?

Like any elected body, school boards must live within state and federal law. That includes federal statutes that prohibit discrimination based on sex and state laws that generally require districts to start the school year after Labor Day and meet in public sessions.

Boards can face fines for falling short of their obligations on public meetings and notices. The public can also report claims of questionable behavior to the Minnesota School Boards Association. There are penalties for violations, depending on the severity of the infraction.

Otherwise, board members can tailor policies to fit their district, including dress codes, curriculum or amendments to existing policy. These proposals usually follow a detailed review process that includes community input and expert opinion. 

For example, school boards do not have the power to ban books arbitrarily, but they do have the power to enact a process that could lead to book bans through meetings, policy reviews from the superintendent, the community or media specialists. 

In Bassett’s experience, good school board members factor in context and advice from those working in schools when creating policy. 

“Policy development has to be really specific and targeted and informed,” Bassett said. “Because if you get any one of those things wrong, then you don’t really get the outcomes that you want to have.”

The Minnesota School Boards Association provides model policies to boards to help make sure proposed policy doesn’t unintentionally break the law, but it can still happen. 

In many parts of Minnesota, the local school board controls the largest public budget, larger than most of the cities or towns it serves.

Stability is often the unwritten goal of school board power.

“When we see a board that’s not getting along, or debating controversial issues and not setting the table for high expectations, that has a way to kind of filter its way into the culture and expectations within the district as well,” Schneidawind said.

“At the end of the day, stability in a school district means that you have stability and discipline on your board,” Bassett said. “That’s stability and discipline to work through a problem and to problem solve from the policy level.”

3) Who wants the job?

The role of a school board member is meant to be nonpartisan but it’s become more political in recent years. More money is flowing into school board campaigns from groups with specific ideological views.

“I would say that this is kind of becoming the new normal, where some of the national big issues are trickling into our local school board races,” Schneidawind said. “One of the things that we also would maintain is that campaigning for school board is different than governing. So some of those folks who are single issue focused, are learning quickly that  governing is harder.”

Some people who run for school board see it as a first step to higher political office, but it’s not a lucrative appointment. Board members in Minnesota are compensated in three ways: per meeting, monthly or annually.

Reports from data collected by the MSBA found school board members make an average of $67 per meeting and an average of $3,620 annually.

Schneidawind said that in his experience a high percentage of school board members are parents or grandparents who run because they want the best for their students and the wider school community. 

That’s why Bassett started as a school board member. She said she sees the job as being the eyes and ears of the community and using those observations to set policies in motion. In order to enact a policy, school board members must reach a majority, which means that members must learn when to accept a difference in opinion and move on accordingly.

“We’re not the people who went to school for years to become teachers or to get advanced degrees to become administrators,” Bassett said. “Those folks are really retained to make sure that the policies and practices get implemented with fidelity. And where they’re falling short [we] have the expertise to actually examine those things and make recommendations about where there needs to be change.”