School Boards 101
School boards are part of Pennsylvania’s statewide public education system. Pennsylvania’s school districts are governed and supported by an elected board of officials that holds certain assigned responsibilities and authorities. The FAQ responses relate to Pennsylvania and the laws related to schools may vary state-to-state.
A school board is a legislative body of citizens called school directors, who are elected locally by their fellow citizens and who serve as the governing body of each public school district. Because school districts are created by statute, they and their governing bodies are regarded as “creatures of the General Assembly” (our state legislature). As such, they function in a sense as agents of the commonwealth. Each board consists of nine members who serve four-year terms of office. Unlike most other elected officials, school directors receive no compensation for their work even though the position can require them to dedicate many hours to it.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly, in compliance with the Constitution of Pennsylvania Article III Section 14, provides school boards the authority to maintain and support a thorough and efficient system of public education. The school board is the governing authority of the school district, elected by its citizens, which oversees the functioning of the district and takes official action as required by federal and state law, regulations and local school board policy such as reviewing and adopting the district’s annual budget, levying and assessing local taxes, officially approving the hiring and compensation of personnel, adopting planned instruction and appointing a district superintendent to manage the day-to-day operations of the district.
The PA School Code provides that in each school district, nine school directors are elected for four-year terms, with five to be elected in one municipal election and four to be elected two years later in the next municipal election. This 5-4 rotation helps ensure continuity, so that there are always at least some members of the board who have two or more years of experience. Unlike most other elected officials, school directors receive no compensation for their work even though the position can require them to dedicate many hours to it.
At-Large and Regional Election Plans
- School districts may adopt one of three types of election plans: at large; by region; or by a combination of regional and at-large seats.
- If elected at large, candidates must be residents of the school district, but may live anywhere in the district and are chosen by all the voters in the district.
- If elected by region, school directors who reside in each region are elected by the voters of their respective regions, with each region electing an equal number.
- Under combined plans, all regions elect an equal number of school directors who reside in each region and who are elected only by the voters of their region, and some directors are elected at large by voters districtwide.
- Candidates elected by region must continue to reside in that region during their term of office.
The Public School Code of 1949 is the primary statutory law that addresses nearly every aspect of public-school operations, including the organization and general powers of school boards. However, the School Code is not the only place to find laws impacting public schools as there are many other state laws affecting operations that appear elsewhere in other statutes. The board works as a team with the superintendent to lead the district. The board’s job is to govern the district and the superintendent’s job is to manage the district by implementing the decisions of the board. The law does not convey any power or authority upon individual school board directors to act on their own merely by virtue of their election to a school board. School districts are corporate bodies with the necessary powers to enable them to carry out the provisions of the School Code. See 24 P.S. §2-211.
Despite the broad powers delegated to school boards, the work of governing a public school system still must happen in an environment highly regulated from the state and federal levels, involving numerous mandates, restrictions and technicalities with which school boards must comply.
Although the law does not give individual powers to school directors beyond their voices and votes at school board meetings, they do have a number of important individual responsibilities in order to be effective in contributing to the board’s collective functions. These responsibilities are reflected in the Principles for Governance and Leadership. Board directors must be prepared to devote the time necessary to carry these out and to commit to ongoing learning about the issues and requirements involved.
School board meetings are official business meetings, at which the school board meets in its official capacity to deliberate and take action on the business of the school district. In accordance with the board’s adopted Policy 006 Meetings and based on the PA Public School Code section 4-421, the school board is required to meet at least once every two months, at specified times and places, to conduct the business of the school district.
The PA Public School Code, the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, the school board’s adopted parliamentary procedure (such as Robert’s Rules of Order), and the school board’s adopted policies establish the rules and requirements for how the board meets and conducts its business. According to the Sunshine Act (65 Pa. C.S. Sec. 702), a meeting is “held for the purpose of deliberating agency business or taking official action.” The role of the school board at meetings is to consider and discuss the information presented on the board meeting agenda, and to take official action by voting on motions made regarding that business, for example, approving the hiring of personnel recommended by administration.
The Sunshine Act requires that official action and deliberations by a quorum of the board and most board committees take place at a meeting open to the public. Boards must also announce to the public, in advance, when and where meetings will be held in order for the public to attend, post the meeting agenda and provide the opportunity for residents and taxpayers to comment before the board takes official action. The Sunshine Act permits school boards to discuss a limited number of items in a closed meeting or “out of sunshine.” Such meetings are called executive sessions and may be held only for the following reasons:
- Personnel matters.
- Information, strategy and negotiation related to negotiation or arbitration of a collective bargaining agreement.
- Consideration of the lease or purchase of property.
- Consulting with an attorney or other professional adviser about active or pending litigation.
- Discussing agency business which, if conducted in public, would violate a lawful privilege or lead to disclosure of information or confidentiality protected by law.
- Discussion of certain public safety issues if disclosure of the information would be reasonably likely to jeopardize or threaten public safety or preparedness or public protection.
- The Sunshine Act also permits school board directors to attend a conference or a seminar, such as training sessions and informational briefings, without the public present.
The Sunshine Act and the board’s adopted Policy 903 Public Participation in Board Meetings require the board to allow the public to attend public meetings and provide a reasonable opportunity for residents or taxpayers (or other individuals who may be designated in Policy 903 such as students and employees) to provide comment “on matters of concern, official action or deliberation which are or may be before the board, prior to taking official action.” (65 Pa. C.S. Sec. 710.1)
The district posts board meeting agendas on the district website in advance of all public board meetings, in accordance with Policy 006 and the Sunshine Act (65 Pa. C.S. Sec. 709), so that members of the public know what will be presented to the board at each meeting. The board may deliberate and take official action on matters not included in a posted agenda only under specific circumstances. (65 Pa. C.S. Sec. 712.1)
Check with your local board for Policy 903 and Policy 006.
The PA Public School Code (Section 407), Policies 006 and 903, and the Sunshine Act (Section 710) allow the board to establish reasonable rules and regulations for conducting the business of the board at public meetings. School boards have the option to accept all public comment on agenda items at the beginning of the meeting, rather than before each vote on each individual agenda item. Boards may set reasonable limits on the overall length of the comment period and the time allotted for each person to comment. The board may choose to hear public comments on non-agenda items at the end of the board meeting. The board may also ask commenters to state their name and information for purpose of taking the board meeting minutes.
As the school board meeting is a meeting of the board for official action, the presiding officer may act in accordance with board policy by exercising measures to maintain order which may include:
- Interrupting or terminating a participant’s statement when the statement has exceeded the allotted time, does not relate to school district matters, is obscene or violates other reasonable standards established by the board in a manner that is not protected by the First Amendment
- Requesting any individual to leave the meeting when that person does not observe reasonable decorum
- Requesting the assistance of law enforcement officers to remove a disorderly person when the person’s conduct interferes with the orderly progress of the meeting
- Calling a recess or adjourn to another time when the lack of public decorum interferes with the orderly conduct of the meeting
Check with your local board for Policy 903 and Policy 006.
To become a school board candidate, you must file nominating petitions signed by at least 10 registered members of the political party for which nomination is sought. A petition signature is valid only if the signer would be eligible to vote for that candidate in the primary based on residence and party for which registered.
Only registered members of the political party for which nomination of that party is sought may circulate nominating petitions. Signers may sign the petitions of more than one candidate for the office of school director for up to the total number of seats available. Any and all documents must be notarized.
The Election Code allows candidates to cross-file for nomination to seek the nomination of more than one major political party. To cross-file, you must fulfill the petition requirements noted above.
Under Pennsylvania’s Public Official and Employee Ethics Act, each candidate for the office of school board director must file a statement of financial interest for the preceding calendar year with the school board secretary of the school district. A copy of the statement also must be attached to the nomination petition filed with the county board of elections.
Pennsylvania’s Campaign Finance Reporting Law also requires candidates to file campaign finance reports listing campaign expenditures and contributions received.
Prior to each election year, the commonwealth’s Department of State Bureau of Elections distributes a complete election calendar with specific dates and other legal requirements to all county offices. Forms for nominating petitions, statements of financial interest, campaign finance reports and other information about these requirements can be obtained from the county board of elections and other municipal offices.
Many things must be taken into consideration when deciding whether to run for election to a local school board. One important component to understand is the legal requirements and technical aspects involved in seeking office and becoming an elected official. Download this guide to understand more about the legal and technical considerations for school director candidates.
The following are requirements for school board candidates:
- At least 18 years of age as of the date of the November municipal election.
- Exhibit good moral character.
- Resident of the school district for at least one year prior to the date of the November municipal election (or prior to appointment if appointed).
- Must have no record of conviction for any felony offense, or any misdemeanor offense involving dishonesty or other “moral turpitude.”
- A federal law known as the Hatch Act prohibits all federal employees and employees of state or local governments whose positions are funded entirely from federal sources from being candidates in partisan political elections for public office, including school boards. School board elections in PA are considered partisan, despite the ability to cross-file.
- The Hatch Act does not prohibit holding elective office if appointed to fill a vacancy.
- Active-duty military, including reservists serving on active duty, are prohibited by federal law and Department of Defense regulations from running for or holding partisan political office.
- Many governmental and private employers have rules or policies that require employees to notify them or get permission whenever they engage in outside employment, including running for elective office.
- School directors cannot be employed by their school district during the term for which elected.
- The office of school director is designated as incompatible with most other local government elective offices; incompatible offices cannot be held simultaneously.
Section 321 of the PA Public School Code provides that school directors shall serve without pay, except as otherwise provided in the School Code. 24 P.S. § 3-321. The only exception to that rule is in Third- and Fourth-Class school districts, a school director can be elected to the office of board secretary or treasurer and be paid. 24 P.S. §§ 4-404, 4-432, 4-438.
Section 315 of the PA Public School Code provides that when a vacancy occurs due to a school director’s death, resignation, moving out of the district or out of the election region, or other reasons, the remaining members of the school board, if still constituting a majority of the statutory membership, must appoint a qualified person to fill the vacancy within 30 days of when the vacancy occurs.
An appointee must be at least 18 years of age and a resident of the district for at least one year prior to the date of their appointment. If the district elects school directors through a regional or combination region/at-large election plan, an appointee for a regional seat must reside in the region they will be representing. The appointee must not hold any other public offices that are designated as incompatible with the office of school director or must resign the incompatible office before being sworn into a school board seat. A person who has been convicted of a felony or other crime involving deceitful conduct is not eligible to hold school board office.