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NY school boards, strained by pandemic and politics have fewer returning members this fall

Small desks in a school classroom
Paul Tuthill

As the new school year is about to get underway, it will begin with fewer incumbent school board members in New York. Strife at board meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing politicization of school policies are contributing to the turnover.

New York State School Boards Association spokesman Dave Albert says nearly one-third (30%) of all school board members in the state’s 731 districts chose not to seek reelection in 2022. It’s a change from the average turnover of 20% to 25% in earlier years.

Albert says school boards, like many other things in recent years, have become politically polarized, and many meetings became “contentious.” Many boards faced strong criticism from parents, notably about pandemic-related policies like mask mandates.

“We have seen some consequences from the last couple of years,” Albert said. “I do think that it has pushed some folks to say, ‘I’m going to call it quits.’”

There will be far fewer pandemic-related rules in the upcoming school year, at least for now. Governor Kathy Hochul and the state’s health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, have confirmed that masks will not be required for students or teachers unless a person is directly exposed to someone who has COVID. In those cases, they would need to wear a face covering for five days.

Brief quarantines will be limited to those who test positive for the virus, and no one who is exposed to someone who is sick will have to provide proof of a negative test result in order to return to school.

Hochul recently explained the changes.

“The days of sending an entire classroom home because one person was symptomatic or tests positive, those days are over,” Hochul said on August 22nd.

There have also been tense discussions about curriculum and what is and isn’t appropriate to teach in the classroom.

Right-leaning groups sponsored school board candidates opposed to the false belief that critical race theory was being taught in schools, but that effort was largely unsuccessful. Critical race theory is an academic framework used in colleges to analyze racism in systems and institutions.

But in addition to many incumbent board members choosing to retire, others were voted out of office during the spring elections. As a result, 45% of board members are new to the job. But Albert says the higher turnover can be a good thing.

“People are starting to realize the importance of school boards,” Albert said.

He says he hopes the renewed interest leads to more people voting in school elections and on school budgets. In most years, just 8% of registered voters go to the polls for school-related votes, compared to 48% who vote in gubernatorial elections. He says that number ticked up slightly in 2022. Albert says school boards take many actions that directly affect families.

“The irony is that, in many cases, the decisions being made by local boards have a greater impact on residents in that community than the federal or state government,” said Albert, who added those issues include curriculum, property taxes transportation, and school nutrition programs.

“There’s a whole host of issues where boards are making very important decisions,” he said.

Albert says he hopes the increased attention will help portray board members, many who aren’t paid for their work, in a more positive light.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.