The best way to learn a candidate’s views and positions on education is to host a “Meet the Candidates” event. Invite those running for Congress, the Ohio General Assembly, Ohio Supreme Court and other statewide offices as well as candidates for the board of education to address education issues before an audience of voters. The candidates will appreciate the exposure, and the voters will be informed when they go to the polls.

Since the primary purpose of a candidates' night is to inform local voters, the planning and preparation for this meeting is much more complex than a regular grassroots meeting. The following guidelines will help you provide for an unbiased forum that is fair to all candidates. Feel free to expand upon these suggestions to best meet the needs of your community, school district and local voters.

There is no legal obstacle in hosting a candidates’ night. Ohio Revised Code Section 3313.78 permits boards of education to hold political meetings on school grounds for the discussion of public questions and issues. The public must be invited, and expending public funds for a public purpose is permitted by law. Any district hosting a candidates’ night should consult the district’s own policy concerning the use of school buildings.

Below are steps to get you started, with a timeline included for each step. The resources include:

Steps to hosting a successful candidate night

Step 1: Choose co-sponsors
To increase the size of your audience, it’s a good idea to get co-sponsors for your event. The National Parent Teachers Association (PTA) has resources on hosting a candidate forum. If you involve local businesses, you will have to decide how broad you want the questions for the candidates to be. If you want them to be only about education issues, you may be limited in asking other co-sponsors. It all depends on how you want to publicize your candidates’ night, whether you want it to be “Meet the candidates” or “What do the candidates have to say about education?”

Co-sponsors can supply ushers, refreshments, publicity and printing. Be sure to recognize all co-sponsors in the program and from the podium that night.

Timeline: As soon as possible

Step 2: Pick a date
Plan to hold your candidates’ night two months prior to the election. Consider absentee voting when selecting a date. Before setting the date, contact the county headquarters of all political parties to make sure that date is available. Political party headquarters may be willing to invite the candidates for you and assist in other ways. Ask that your forum be put on their calendars.

Timeline: Four months prior to date of event

Step 3: Choose a site
The auditorium, cafeteria or library of a centrally located high school or career center would make a great location for your forum. What better place to discuss education issues than in a public school?

Decorations such as flags and bunting are fun, but unless someone is anxious to head up this project, decorations are not necessary. Maps to the school and signs in the building directing the speakers and audience to the auditorium are necessary.

Test the lighting and sound system ahead of time and have identification signs (visible from the back of the room) for the candidates and moderator. Make sure there is easy access to the stage, including a ramp for handicap access. The moderator’s table or lectern should be off to the side of the stage, and the candidates’ table should be center stage. If possible, supply a microphone for every two people at the table and a floor microphone for questions, if appropriate. Provide water for all speakers and paper and pencils.

If you will be providing refreshments following the program, set them up in a separate room. An informal time for refreshments provides voters and candidates an opportunity to speak one-on-one and allows school board members and school administrators the opportunity to develop that all-important relationship with their legislator.

Timeline: Three months prior to event

Step 4: Arrange for a moderator
Usually a moderator is chosen for the following attributes:

  • stage presence;
  • ability to make a quick decision;
  • tact and sense of fair play;
  • reasonable sense of humor;
  • gracious manner while being firm;
  • political neutrality.

The choice of a moderator is very important. One suggestion is to ask a media professional such as a radio or TV newscaster. An advantage of having someone from the media is additional publicity. A local judge or someone from the business community is also a good option. To be unbiased, we recommend someone outside of the education community.

It is appropriate for the board president or district superintendent to welcome the candidates and audience, and to introduce the moderator. The moderator then takes over for the remainder of the program and plays a key role in the success of the meeting. Be sure the moderator is aware of any sensitive issues that may arise. He or she needs to know the rules for the forum, a detailed time schedule, the length of time for responses and the correct pronunciation of each candidate’s name.

General tips for the moderator are included in the overview of meeting logistics.

Timeline: Two months prior to event

Step 5: Invite participants
Send invitations two months prior to your event. Candidates’ calendars fill up quickly just prior to an election. As mentioned previously, take any help the county political party offices are willing to give you to aid in inviting candidates. Confirm all invitations in writing, along with the schedule, rules, biography form and directions to the site. Access a sample invitation.

Make sure you invite all candidates that the county board of elections has registered. Contact the OSBA legislative division to find candidates in your area.

Timeline: Two months prior to event

Step 6: Request candidate biographies and information
Along with the invitation you send to each candidate, enclose a request for biographical information (a sample is available). When this information is returned, compile a candidates’ guide, which could be posted online or distributed to members of the audience. This will eliminate the need for lengthy introductions and more time can be spent on the issues. Regardless, make sure the moderator has detailed information on the candidates ahead of time.

Timeline: Two months prior to event

Step 7: Develop rules for the debate
Enclose a list of the ground rules (a sample is available in the meeting logistics overview) and a schedule of the meeting with the invitation to the candidates. The rules ensure fairness for everyone. You will have to decide if you will permit substitute speakers for those candidates who cannot attend the forum. Will a statement from an absent candidate, read by the moderator, be allowed?

A timekeeper is a must to help ensure fairness.

Timeline: Two months prior to event

Step 8: Determine the event format and logistics • view meeting logistics overview
Assign a host or hostess for each candidate. This is a good job for school board members. When the candidate arrives, the host or hostess greets the candidate, gives the candidate a name tag and generally makes him or her feel at ease.

The board president should welcome the audience, lead the Pledge of Allegiance, ask the candidates to take their places on stage and introduce the moderator.

The moderator introduces the candidates and gives each candidate (in alphabetical order) the opportunity to come to the podium to make a timed opening statement. Following the statements, the moderator will ask the prepared questions, alternating which candidate answers first.

Following the prepared questions, audience questions could be taken either verbally or in written form. Each candidate will then have the opportunity to make a timed closing statement.

Upon completion of the closing statements, the board president should take the microphone, thank the candidates, moderator, co-sponsors and audience, and invite everyone for refreshments, if applicable.

If you decide to permit candidates to distribute campaign literature, this should be done following the formal program, during the refreshment period. Campaign literature can be placed on tables outside the auditorium to be picked up on the way out.

Timeline: Two months prior to event

Step 9: Publicize your event
After you’ve gone to all this hard work to organize a candidates’ night, it would be a shame if you had poor attendance. You need to get the word out about your event. Prepare a news release and send it to the local media two weeks in advance of your event. Once you’ve sent the news release, follow up the week before the event with a phone call to the news editor, and invite a reporter and photographer to attend, along with local TV and radio stations.

School newsletters should include an announcement of the meeting, and you can share social media posts to promote the event. Encourage candidates to share the social media promotions. If you have digital announcement boards in front of your schools, post the notice two weeks prior to the event for citizens driving by.

A sample news release is available on this webpage. Fliers could be distributed through local businesses or your chamber of commerce.

Be sure to let the OSBA Division of Legislative Services know that you are hosting a candidates' night. Contact the division at (614) 540-4000.

Timeline: One month prior to event

Step 10: Outline the question-and-answer format
There are two options for a question-and-answer period. One is to have individuals called upon from the audience, or have them line up at a microphone, to verbally ask their questions. The moderator will recognize individuals to speak.

The other option is to have audience members write their questions down on index cards and submit them. A screening committee of three people should review the questions before submitting them to the moderator. The screening committee is responsible for weeding out inappropriate questions and slander. Written questions make the moderator’s job easier, since he or she won’t have to deal with audience members who want to make a statement, rather than ask a question.

All candidates must be asked the same questions and given the same amount of time to respond.

Again, OSBA has developed some questions based on its Legislative Platform that you may use. If you choose to develop your own questions:

  • word questions simply;
  • choose issues of major interest to your school district;
  • don’t let a question seem to favor any candidate;
  • restrict issues to those solvable at the state level;
  • have the moderator explain technical language briefly, e.g. “IEP,” “NCLB”;
  • ask both general and specific questions.

Timeline: One month prior to event

Step 11: Recognize those who participated in and helped with your candidates' night
Programs for the candidates’ night should be distributed to all in attendance, including the candidates. They should include the agenda for the meeting, a list of the candidates and the biographical information submitted from the candidates. On the last page of the program, acknowledge all co-sponsors, volunteers and donations received.

Timeline: One month prior to event