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These state groups are redefining what it means to be a school board member

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As school board candidates run and win on more conservative-leaning platforms promising public school reforms, alternatives to traditional school board member associations have launched in states like Virginia and Pennsylvania in an attempt to redefine the role.

Alternatives for conservative-leaning school board members have proven to be contentious, but proponents say they are following the law and holding school systems more accountable to promote student success.

The York County School Board in Yorktown, Virginia, recently debated whether to use an alternative to the Virginia School Board Association.

The board voted in April to abandon the School Board Member Alliance of Virginia, the alternative to VSBA, citing a clause that would prevent it from using both school board associations, according to WYDaily. It later voted to employ SBMA, although several members have declined to attend an upcoming training, according to the Daily Press.

One board member told the Daily Press “don’t believe” in what the SBMA stands for. Another said he wouldn’t attend because he serves on the board of the ​​Virginia School Board Association.

Sherri Story, a former board member for Suffolk Public Schools and founder of the SBMA, said her training from the traditional VSBA focused more on the constraints of her elected role.

“The training I received was oriented toward what school board members could not do,” Story told Chalkboard News in an interview. “It makes board members’ roles a very narrow lane, essentially rubber stamping.”

Christina Brussalis, a school board director of the Pine-Richland School District near Pittsburgh and a founder of an alternative association in Pennsylvania, told Chalkboard that she was told the same things.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told as a sitting school board member to be a rubber stamp,” Brussalis said. “The law doesn’t say that.”

Story said that digging through Virginia laws defining the role of a school board member broadened her view.

“I found that the lane was not nearly as narrow as I had been trained to believe,” Story said, referring to a state statute that requires school board members to be able to explain, follow and enforce school laws.

“Instead of focusing on the limitations of the role, SBMA provides training to individual board members on how to focus on what they can do to hold school systems accountable to the laws on the books,” Story said. “That means helping new elected officials challenge the very idea of what it means to be a board member.”

Brussalis’ brand-new alternative association, the Pennsylvania School Directors Coalition, also seeks to expand the definition of what it means to be a school board member – or director, as they are called in the Keystone State. The PSDC does not cost directors anything.

Brussalis told Chalkboard that in Pennsylvania, school board directors have a lot of power to make decisions from curriculum to long-term financial wellness, and her organization helps provide veteran and rookie directors with information and the right questions to ask administrators.

The SBMA also offers guidance to new school leaders, Story said.

“People who run for office want to do the right thing, but someone has to guide them. What they’ve seen done in the past is very often not what the law requires,” Story said. “They are told a good school board member trusts their superintendent and votes for whatever he wants.”

“I don’t think that’s a good elected official,” Story said. “We take an oath to follow the laws of the commonwealth. We need to give our constituents evidence that the laws are being followed.”

Story said that approaching the role with oversight and accountability is a big contrast from the traditional understanding of how a school board member should act.

“You were supposed to have blind trust and faith that all of your employees were doing a perfect job,” Story said. “That’s not good governance. Blind faith is not the kind of governance that parents are expecting from the people they elect.”

Story said an accountability-focused role means asking administrators for proof that the laws are being followed through reports, budget documents and data.

“That’s where the pushback is coming from,” Story said.

The concept that school board members should be agents of oversight have ruffled feathers in the education establishment, according to Story. When members start asking for proof, it often creates hostility between administrators and their elected overseers.

“There’s all sorts of accusations leveled at new school board members who believe in this kind of accountability,” Story said. “The pushback is very great. It often results in a lot of mudslinging at board meetings.”

Story said that in Virginia, superintendents are technically employed by the school board. She said in other workforces, asking employees to be accountable for their work would not be filled with so much hostility.

“The more I looked into the power and duty of the local school board, I realized why there was a pushback,” Story said. “They don’t want to give up their power.”

At the heart of SBMA’s mission is student success, Story said.

“Every agenda should never be void of some kind of student achievement data or data analysis,” Story said. “Every school board meeting should have a component of monitoring student achievement.”

Brussalis also said that it all comes back to moving the needle in the right direction for students without waiting for the state legislature to mandate a reform.

“We can decide we’re going to manage our money and have a philosophy that it’s all about student achievement in everything that we do,” Brussalis told Chalkboard. “We can set those priorities and expectations. We can make a big impact on education in Pennsylvania.”

Brussalis said that it’s exciting to see organizations springing up in different states after coming to the same realization about the role of school board members and directors.

“It has been exciting to find other people like Sherri who have seen the same problem and see the same kinds of solutions,” Brussalis said. “It’s a bit of a movement.”

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