School Boards Are Under Attack. Here’s Why They Matter.

Picture of Jennifer Hall Lee

Jennifer Hall Lee

Picture of Jennifer Hall Lee

Public school boards are under bright spotlights these days and they have become prime targets for the angry projections of people’s fear and anxiety.

This isn’t unusual because changes that occur in a society are always played out in public schools. Additionally, the pandemic has taken a toll on public school enrollment.

Public schools are public institutions and ours are under strain.

I am a school board trustee in the Pasadena Unified School District and I began campaigning for the position in the early days of the pandemic. I donned a mask, knocked on doors and, before the resident could open the door, I had to quickly step back 6 feet in order to keep my distance. I thought I handled it with aplomb until the wildfires started and the smoke created a haze through an eerie orange glow. Despite these inconveniences, I wanted to win the race so I kept walking door to door in this seemingly apocalyptic world.

I love challenges and that comes in handy on the school board because many of the tasks are not necessarily concrete; in fact, they are steeped in areas of our society that include such things as community, relationships, collaboration, and vision.

For those who are unfamiliar with what board trustees do, here is a general list:

  • Setting direction
  • Establishing an effective and efficient structure
  • Providing support
  • Ensuring accountability
  • Providing community leadership as advocates for children, the school district, and public schools
  • Within those categories are sub-categories such as adopting the budget, hiring the superintendent, overseeing facilities, and more.

School board trustees are community members who don’t necessarily have experience running school districts or even teaching. That may sound unsettling but understand that school districts operate because of the skill and experience of the administrators, teachers, staff people, and the superintendent. In our district, our teachers and staff have higher degrees in education which enable them to make the decisions that keep the district running and also to diagnose the needs of students.

The school board is the citizen oversight part of our public schools and it is essential in a democracy. There are areas of our country where school boards are appointed by mayors instead of being elected by voters. This practice injects partisan politics into public education and dilutes the power of the citizen.

Notably, school boards have a direct effect on student achievement. This is very important. Nothing we do or say is trivial.

A landmark study about the effects of school boards on student achievement called the Lighthouse Study showed us many things about effective school boards and ineffective school boards by studying boards in districts where student achievement was low and districts where student achievement was high.

One of the eight characteristics of effective school boards in high achieving districts was that they “lead as a united team with the superintendent, each from their respective roles, with strong collaboration and mutual trust.” School boards are powerful as a team, not as individuals, and can yield amazingly positive results for students.

Power in unity

This is where I return to my faith in the Pasadena Unified School District. I believe that PUSD can be one of the preeminent school districts in the nation. We have all the pieces and we need to bring them together. It’s a positive challenge I believe can be accomplished at the board level with mutual trust, honest conversations, and collaboration with the superintendent. With the power of the full board and a love for the PUSD, we can accomplish a tremendous amount of positive work.

This piece appeared originally on

Jennifer Hall Lee was elected to the Pasadena Unified School Board in 2020. She co-created the Women’s History Month assembly which explores feminist themes for all middle school students in the Pasadena public schools. Her speaking engagements have included the British Library, Feminism in London Conference, Berkshire Conference on Women’s History, Hampshire College, UCLA, and the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan. She was awarded a Fulbright in 2018 and is a Fulbright Finalist. A writer and filmmaker, her film “Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation” explores the significance of the second wave of the women’s liberation movement in the United States.

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