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What to know as you're voting for school board members

Current school board members and students say it's important to center the needs and voices of students when considering how to fill out your ballot.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Across the country, school board meetings have gotten more attention than ever before — starting in the early months of the pandemic when parents rallied to reopen schools and drop COVID restrictions. 

In the past year, school board meetings have become the epicenter of the culture wars, as parents and community members push to assert their ideas over how racism should be taught, how gender expression should be handled, and even which books should and should not be available in school libraries.

In Oregon, school board members are elected every two years, in odd-numbered years. Turnout is historically low for these elections, but Oregon School Boards Association president Sonja McKenzie, a member of the Parkrose school board in Northeast Portland, said these elections are just as important as any other, even if you don't have kids in the school district.

"Now more than ever, it's vitally important that we support public schools," said McKenzie. "Investing now in education is going to support our communities later." 

When it comes to choosing a candidate, McKenzie said it's important to know what a school board member does and does not actually have power over, and to choose someone who understands the job. School boards have three main roles, McKenzie said: to hire and evaluate the superintendent, to create policy, and to evaluate and approve the district's budget.

"There's quite a bit of misconception about what school board members do," McKenzie said. "School board members are not legislators. As board members, we don't do anything without reaching consensus."

Several local school boards are working to incorporate more student voices into board operations, adding positions on the board for student representatives, and restructuring meetings so that those students' reports are heard early in the meeting. 

Portland Public Schools student representative Byronie McMahon and Tigard-Tualatin student representative Aishiki Nag are both pushing for the state of Oregon to lower the voting age to 16 for school board elections.

"School districts are students, and the easiest way to get students involved in the decision-making process is to allow them the opportunity and the right to decide who represents them," said McMahon.

Election Day in Oregon is May 16th. Ballots are due by 8 p.m.

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