A large body of research has found that local school boards can positively impact student learning when their decisions and actions are focused on elevating student achievement.
Unfortunately, in the past there have been frequent instances of school board members who failed to focus on this core mission because they were actively running for another political office, or because they were focused on finding jobs in the school district for their friends and political supporters.
To deter candidates who seek to use the local school board as a political stepping stone, the legislature should enact a law requiring school board members to resign their school board seat as soon as they file paperwork to run for another elected office.
New Mexico state law already prohibits superintendents from hiring immediate family members of school board members. However, New Mexico is one of just 13 states with no penalty for engaging in nepotism. In a majority of other states, nepotism by a school board member carries a penalty that ranges from from a fine to a civil action to a criminal misdemeanor to removal from office to even a criminal felony in two states.
Similarly, in New Mexico only school board candidates in districts with 12,000 or more students are required to disclose their political donations. Only 5 of the 89 school districts in New Mexico meet that threshold today. That means of the 447 school board members in New Mexico, just 27 (less than 7%) are required to disclose their political contributions, even though school boards for even the smallest districts oversee the doling out of lucrative public contracts.
To deter those who would use their school board position to reward relatives and political supporters, the legislature and governor should require that school board members 1) forfeit their office if proven to have engaged in nepotism and 2) disclose all of their political contributions and contributors.
Deterring potential school board members who run for the office for the wrong reasons is one part of the solution to improving the quality of school boards.
In addition, a growing body of research has shown that school board performance can be improved by providing members with high-quality training. A 2020 meta-analysis of two decades worth of research found that school boards that dedicated more time to training their members in good governance practices demonstrated an increased focus on student performance, which in turn was correlated with higher student achievement in those districts.
Currently, New Mexico school board members receive just five hours a year of training, which provides a very basic foundation in school finance and law. Considering that most school board members enter their positions without any background or expertise in how to oversee a school district, they would benefit from significantly more training in how to succeed in their roles.
The legislature and governor should increase the annual training requirements for all school board members from five hours to 24, and focus those expanded trainings on how school board governance can improve student outcomes.
A final reform to improve school board culture is by increasing transparency. Although many school board meetings went remote during the height of the pandemic, there is no requirement that school board meetings be webcast or that families have options to participate remotely. The sunshine of transparency can deter bad behavior and make it easier for com-munity members to participate.
The legislature and governor should require that all school board meetings be webcast, and those webcasts archived, just as they are for legislative hearings.
By implementing this package of reforms, we can make New Mexico’s school boards more professional and put school district leaders in a position to focus on the things that really matter, like increasing student achievement.