There are nearly 14,000 public school districts in the United States, each of which has a school board. With an average of five to nine members on each board, there are close to 100,000 individual school board members nationally, most of whom are elected and volunteer their time.
A school board’s job is to establish the vision and goals for the district’s public schools and set the standards for the performance of the schools and superintendents. School boards develop the annual budget to run the school system, set school policies, hire and evaluate the district’s superintendent and work closely with school and district leaders on school safety, discipline, classroom resources, facilities and other operational issues. The day-to-day operations of a school district are the responsibility of the superintendent, including hiring staff, measuring student performance and responding to crises like the pandemic.
School boards are supposed to focus on education policy and administration. They are not a legislative body; they have no authority beyond their school district bounds; and they have no role in national or international affairs. So, what was the school board in Ann Arbor, Michigan, doing last week debating and approving a resolution calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war? What prompted the school board to believe that its cease-fire demand — passed during a contentious, five-hour meeting in which 122 people signed up to speak — had any meaning or impact in a war being waged 6,000 miles away?
To their credit — and just in case anyone believed differently — the resolution acknowledged that the Ann Arbor school board has “a limited role in international affairs.” Nonetheless, in addition to the cease-fire demand, the board called for the “release of all hostages and unrestricted humanitarian aid at the levels recommended by the United Nations for the Palestinian people,” condemned “discrimination against any individual based on personal background whether Israeli or Palestinian” and condemned Islamophobia, antisemitism and “anti-Jewish racism.” After all that, the vote of the seven-member board was four in favor, one opposed and two abstentions.
Ann Arbor was not the first school board to weigh in on the issue. The New Haven Unified School District in California’s Bay Area claims that honor. And it’s not just school boards. Last month, United Auto Workers became the largest union to call for a cease-fire in Gaza, joining the Postal Workers and other unions. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 for a cease-fire earlier this month.
We understand why the Vatican, the United Nations General Assembly and even Americans for Peace Now feel entitled to opine on the war in Gaza. International affairs are within their area of interest and involvement. But a school district in Michigan? Or the corporate board of Ben & Jerry’s, an ice cream company? War and peace and international relations seem to be well outside their areas of expertise.
Nonetheless, everyone has an opinion — and an apparent need to express it. Alas, notwithstanding Ann Arbor’s hard-fought resolution victory, the war in Gaza didn’t stop the next day, the hostages held in Gaza were not released and anti-Jewish racism didn’t stop. Moreover, lots of feelings were hurt, portions of the community felt increasingly unsafe and no progress was made on the district’s search for a new superintendent. Not exactly a banner day for the Ann Arbor school board.