How Does a School District Work?

School districts
School district leadership
School district finance
Further information

School districts

What is a school district?
A school district is a government agency responsible for operating local public schools. There are about 100 schools in the Seattle School District; others in Washington have only a few schools. A school board governs each school district. A school board is a group of publicly elected officials.

How many school districts does Washington have?
Washington has 295 local school districts.

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School district leadership

School District Leadership: teachers report to the principal. Principals report to the superintendent. The Superintendent reports to the school board

1. The School Board

  • Elected by voters to set goals
  • Conducts strategic planning
  • Hires and oversees the superintendent
  • Adopts the school district budget
  • Creates policy for schools in the district
  • Oversees the school district
  • Represents voters

Who can be a school board member?
Any registered voter in the school district may run for election. The candidate must file financial disclosures and win the election to become a board member. Board members are also called school directors.

When are school board elections held?
Voters choose school board members in odd-numbered years. Their terms are staggered, meaning that not all positions are open at each election.

How long is a school board term of office?
Members serve four-year terms on all Washington school boards except in Spokane, Tacoma and Everett, where the term is six years.

How many people are on a school board?
There are five members on a school board except in the state's largest district, Seattle Public Schools, where the board has seven members.

Are school board members paid?
Members are paid a small daily fee in some districts. In other districts, board members are reimbursed for expenses. Each board determines its own payment policy.

Can I attend a school board meeting?
Yes. All school board meeting are open to the public. However, the law does allow the meeting to be closed to the public for discussion of certain topics, such as contract negotiations or pending litigation. Agendas are made public at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting and will specify if a closed or executive session is scheduled. You may find an agenda on the school district website.

How can I influence decisions made by the school board?
Attend meetings and keep informed. Let board members know your opinions.

  • Arrange to speak during the public-comment time at a school board meeting. Many boards provide a sign-up sheet near the entrance to the meeting room.
  • Look for meeting broadcasts on cable TV, and ask the district office if there is an email list for people interested in school board news.
  • Write or phone your school board representative to make your opinions known.
  • See the ACLU's Guide to School Board Advocacy in Washington.

2. What does a school superintendent do?

  • Manages the school district
  • Reports to the school board

The superintendent is the top executive in a school district, supervising central staff and the principals. The superintendent implements the school board's vision through day-to-day decisions about educational programs, expenditures, staff and facilities. The school board hires the superintendent.

3. What does a school principal do?

  • Manages staff and student body
  • Manages day-to-day operations of the school
  • Reports to the superintendent

The principal is the top educator at a school. The principal provides vision and direction to increase student performance, manages day-to-day operations, provides staff development and evaluation, and builds relationships with parents and the community.

4. What is the teachers' role?

  • Report to the principal
  • Provide instruction to students

Classroom teachers are the people most directly involved in students' education. Teachers instruct and evaluate students to help them meet academic standards. Teachers report to the school principal.

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School district finance

Understanding school district spending can give you insight to what your school board values most and can help you make well-informed suggestions to your school board members. Money from a particular source may come with restrictions on how it can be spent. For example, if the voters approve a levy to remodel classrooms, the school board cannot decide to use that money to pay for textbooks or teacher salaries.

Where do school districts get their money?

  • 70 percent state funds
  • 10 percent federal funds for special programs
  • 16 percent local property taxes as approved by voters
  • 4 percent other sources, such as federal, state, or private grants

Who decides how to spend the money?

  • The school board chooses goals and priorities.
  • The superintendent and staff make a budget.
  • The school board approves the budget and monitors spending.
  • Voters influence the process through the people they elect to the school board.

What is a levy?
A levy is local funding used to pay school district expenses. Property owners pay a share based on the value of their real estate. The money may be used for maintenance and operations, capital expenses or transportation.

What is a bond issue?
A bond issue is a method for a school district to borrow money. Voters, whose property taxes will repay the loan with interest, must approve a bond issue.

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Further information

How Does a School District Work? (A Guide for Families)

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