Like most people who first decide to run for school board, Lawrence Feinberg was acquainted only vaguely with the job description.
He was pitched softly on the concept by some community activists in Haverford Township. "They suckered me in," he recalled, "and said, 'It's just a couple of meetings a month.' "
That was 12 years ago. He learned it meant meetings on top of meetings, deconstructing documents that were not beach reading, complicated labor contracts.
Now, after spending 3,000 hours on Haverford School District business in what has been a contentious era in public education, he knows why he and thousands of others seek school board seats.
"The short answer on why people want to run these days is because we are out of our . . . minds," he said.
For the most part, candidates believe in public education and want to make a difference, said Thomas J. Gentzel, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. "It really is one of the last vestiges of true citizen service."
It might be enriching, but not monetarily. Feinberg has witnessed stunning run-ups in education costs. But one thing has not increased: the school board paycheck. It's still $0.00 after all these years in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
"Not everyone is motivated by money," said Liane Davis, who served on the board in Tredyffrin-Easttown, Chester County, for nine years before stepping down in 2009.
"For all the time away from home and the long meetings, at the end of the day, it's knowing you're doing this for the kids," said Seth Klukoff, president of the Cherry Hill board, who won reelection last month.
"It's thankless," said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.
And it has never been more thankless, some contend. Given the sometimes long and always payless hours, "I don't think people understand how used they are going to be," said Sandy Gibson, a former board member in the tiny Morrisville, Bucks County, district.
Technically, Pennsylvania and New Jersey school directors are state officials. They are responsible for overseeing budgets and levying taxes, and money issues remain the No. 1 concern among board members, according to a survey by Gentzel's group.
Govs. Corbett and Christie have targeted school budgets; taxpayers are broke, angry, or both; and the overall climate arguably has never been more hostile for public education.
"These are very, very difficult times," said David A. Ebby, departing school board president in the wealthy Lower Merion Area School District, which has been rocked by controversies over redistricting and new buildings.
Yet, Feinberg is running again, and he isn't wanting for company in Tuesday's primary. In fact, some of the races for the 2,500 seats statewide are hotly contested. In Bucks and Delaware Counties, 264 candidates are fighting for 159 seats.
In New Jersey, candidacies for school board vacancies in last month's elections were at a five-year high, with 2,222 candidates running for 1,612 seats.
School board veterans concede that not every candidate's motives are pure. Schools are some towns' biggest employers, thus a potential source of jobs and contracts for acquaintances.
But the consensus among education experts is that candidates "usually have the right motivation," Gentzel said.
"I wanted to serve. I wanted to be effective," said Davis, who lives in Tredyffrin Township. She originally was appointed to complete an unexpired term, then ran for two more.
Davis became part of a Pennsylvania trend. In its 2010 survey, Gentzel's association found that female directors outnumbered men on school boards, 51-49. In 2002, men outnumbered women, 62-38.
As with Davis, who sent three children through district schools, most board members have children in the system in which they serve.
In her case, she was a school volunteer when she was encouraged to finish an unexpired term. She recounted that those who approached her said, " 'You don't have an agenda, and that's what we need.' "
They assured her that a full four-year term would be hers for the asking. That was incorrect; getting elected required all-out campaigning, complete with signs and meet-and-greets. She did, however, manage to win two elections.
In Pennsylvania, with the exception of Philadelphia, and in most New Jersey districts, school boards are nine-member bodies elected by residents. In Pennsylvania, they are up for election every four years in groups of four and five. New Jerseyans elect three members each year.
In New Jersey, the elections are nonpartisan; Pennsylvania is a tad stranger. If you see the same people running as both Democrats and Republicans on the primary ballot, you're not seeing double. Pennsylvania allows people to seek the nomination from both parties. Gentzel said that was the state's bone to nonpartisanship. But parties can and do endorse candidates. The GOP, for example, helped Davis finance her campaigns.
Campaigns can become rancorous. In the North Penn School District in Lansdale last week, voters received fliers attributed to the North Penn Republican Club that showed a handgun aimed at a piggy bank with a caption reading, "the teachers' union wants total control over your money." The union called the flier "reprehensible."
And it turns out that running for an unpaid post comes with costs, Feinberg said. For example, all those printed signs you see on lawns out there cost $4 to $5 each. To raise money, Feinberg said, he has hosted coffee meetings and wine-and-cheese parties.
He said he was proud of what the Haverford board had accomplished, including the first significant building upgrades in 50 years. He said that four years ago, "I had at least some pause before I threw my hat into the ring."
But not this time. Said Feinberg, "I fear for the institution of public education."