Government entities known as special districts carry out some municipal and county government functions. Special districts are established by state law, and are typically governed by elected boards with the help of professional staff. Special districts are single-purpose governments, meaning that their sole function is to perform one task, such as fire prevention, sewage treatment, rural irrigation, or pest control. The distinguishing characteristic of a special district is its power to impose taxes and borrow money to finance its services, as well as spend federal funds. The property tax is the most common type of levy for special districts. It is believed that California employs the most special districts, estimated to be in the tens of thousands.
By far the most common type of special district is the school district. In 1812, New York City created the first school district, to determine where students should attend school. At one point in time, there were more than 100,000 school districts in the United States. After several decades of consolidation, that number has been reduced to about 15,000.
In 1647, Massachusetts became the first colony to pass an ordinance (the Old Deluder Satan Act) requiring towns to provide free schooling for children. By the end of the nineteenth century, mandatory education was standard in every state. At that time, school was recessed during the summer months so that children were free to help on the farms. Today, that tradition persists, even though fewer than 1 percent of the population remains in farming.
School districts are particularly common in states where the cities or counties do not administer the school systems (this occurs in about half the states). Although they come in varying sizes, school districts everywhere have one thing in common: They are run by an elected or appointed board. This board appoints a superintendent to administer the school system, and makes broad policy decisions for the district. The board also determines the district's curriculum, creates school boundaries, and makes decisions about building new schools. Board decisions are usually well publicized and highly scrutinized by district residents.
School district elections are some of the most hotly contested political contests at the state and local level. Ambitious public servants frequently use school board positions as entry points into the political system, and many school board members go on to serve in city and state government.