While the U.S. has a system of government described as a representative democracy, there are many areas where you can also see participatory democracy in action. A combination of the two is ideal.
Which is to say, we should all participate beyond voting. While voting is certainly the crucial aspect, citizens can and should interact with their elected officials regularly outside of election season. This is true for a variety of issues, but particularly on things like legislation, policy — and hiring a new superintendent of schools.
It works best if the representatives know their constituents’ issues, and that can only happen when constituents use their voices.
The Board of Education is a part of local government that functions as a representative democracy, elected by the citizens in their community. Often, we know our school board members because they are our neighbors or friends. With that familiarity comes a certain level of trust because you have a sense of that person’s values or personality or skills. Those are important things to know when voting for a representative in government, but that isn’t as common at the state and federal level as it is with school boards.
It’s easy as a citizen to presume your level of familiarity with an elected representative means you think you know how they will handle various situations. This is not always the case, especially as we have seen in the last year, when we navigate extraordinary situations.
This is where the participatory aspect is especially important. When you find yourself frustrated or annoyed, the first thing you should ask yourself is whether your representative knows what you think and how you feel. It’s just as important to share positive feedback. When you share this information, it is beneficial to indicate if the issue you’re speaking about is something that directly affects you and, if so, how (and also why).
Learning how to advocate effectively and participate in government at any and all levels is crucially important and the school board is no different.
There are times when advocacy and participation can change the trajectory of a board policy or action. There also are times when it will not have an impact on the outcome, which can be very frustrating and disappointing, especially if you feel you have put a hefty amount of time and energy into writing emails and public forum comments.
It’s important — and this can’t be stressed enough — to realize that even if you didn’t affect the final outcome, you definitely influenced your representative. Ultimately, though, you elected representatives to make hard decisions and, as we are not a full participatory democracy, the representative is the policymaker.
School districts are incredibly complex systems of funding and staffing, and have the critical job of teaching young minds to be lifelong learners. There are aspects of those systems that would be nearly impossible for anyone outside the board to fully understand. This fact is not a slight to the public — just the sheer nature of the volume of information received during countless hours of volunteering to serve the public.
According to the website for the National School Boards Association, local school boards serve a variety of functions, including the employment of district superintendent. The Santa Fe Board of Education interviewed candidates to become the district’s next superintendent just two days ago. That selection is one of the board’s most important jobs, which means it’s one of the very most important times for you to share your voice.
Representatives work best when they know what their communities want and need. Please continue to help make our community work better for all of us by sharing your voice and participating.
Learning Santa Fe is a bimonthly column by a variety of community voices about the state of our schools and education in general. Sarah Boses is the secretary of the Santa Fe Board of Education, an oncology nurse, and a mother of three children in the school district.