Monday, July 15, 2024

More Districts Leave Virginia School Board Association

A row of backpacks at a Virginia school. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — A handful of Virginia school boards are exiting the Virginia School Board Association, the longest-running organization dedicated to supporting school boards in the commonwealth, over claims that it has failed to meet their needs and doesn’t align with their conservative values.

Gina Patterson, executive director of VSBA, established in 1906, said she would not comment on the claims made by the few boards but instead responded that the association’s decisions are based on the school boards’ priorities, not staff’s.

School Boards that did not renew VSBA membership

    • Bedford County
    • Isle of Wight County
    • Orange County
    • Rockingham County
    • Warren County

*List as of June 14 at 5 p.m.

“What we do is based on the decisions of the majority of our members, based on legislative positions and how they want us to lobby for or against something at the General Assembly,” Patterson told the Mercury.

VSBA offers school boards networking opportunities, professional development sessions, optional add-on policy and legal services, governance training, and can assist with superintendent searches.

Conservative and some newly elected board members, including those from Warren and Orange counties, said the organization wasn’t incorporating their legislative priorities and providing training that mirrors their principles.

Before they were elected, some of those school boards’ members campaigned on certain parents’ frustration with how school boards operated by allowing “divisive concepts” in schools, endangering students, adopting controversial policies around transgender students and books, and renaming schools and mascots connected to the racist ideals of the Confederacy. Gov. Glenn Youngkin focused his campaign on many of the same issues.

Tiffany Van Der Hyde, executive director of We The People, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization tracking shifts in school board memberships, said Gov. Youngkin rallying with parents over education issues in 2021 contributed to some Virginia school boards’ political polarization and the exodus of many of their members.

Youngkin’s election “empowered a lot of far-right candidates to seek office in this space, and we saw a lot of really great conservative, local school board members across the state decide not to run again,” Hyde said.“ They just didn’t want to be a part of it and when they left, the more extreme candidates filled those gaps.”

Boards exit from VSBA

Some school board members claimed that VSBA, which the boards pay through agreements, has failed to prove its value to their communities.

Warren County Board Member Thomas McFadden said during a Sept. 6 vote to leave the VSBA that he believed the school staff and board could govern themselves and implement policies relating to issues like school discipline without the association.

“They do provide some services that are worthwhile, but I look at the return for what we’re putting in and what we’re getting, then I look at our geographic location, and there are other counties here in the [Shenandoah Valley] that sort of get snubbed by them,” McFadden said.

The Warren County School Board became one of the earliest to decline to renew its membership with VSBA, followed most recently by boards in Orange County and Rockingham County. Rockingham voted to begin its membership with the alternative School Board Member Alliance, but keep VSBA’s policy services.

On May 20, board members in Orange County voted not to renew their agreements with VSBA, citing thousands of dollars in costs and saying they could find resources elsewhere. Members are also only attending some training sessions, which carry additional fees.

Orange County board member Darlene Dawson claimed that the VSBA has been a “monopoly” for a long time.

“They self-identify as a lobbying organization, and they lobby for many things that I, on principle, stand against, and I’m not interested in supporting them,” Dawson said in May. “I prefer to take my training from someone who supports my values.”

A controversial alternative

The School Board Member Alliance of Virginia, a conservative-leaning group and nonprofit organization, has emerged as a popular alternative for some of VSBA’s former school board members in the past year.

As of June 12, the association represents five percent of Virginia’s school boards members and supports parental rights, educational freedom for families and traditional academics. Unlike the VSBA, the Alliance offers individual memberships.

“Our professional development is based on the powers and duties afforded to school board members under Virginia law,” said Shelly Norden, spokesperson for SBMA. “We believe every child deserves a quality education in a safe and disruption-free environment. School boards have the legal authority to ensure this is happening.”

Alliance members and leaders have reportedly threatened a board member in York County (which the SBMA refutes) and rebranded two schools with Confederate names in Shenandoah County.

Norden said the alliance’s members were elected to local school boards to serve their constituents.

“SBMA launched to give school board members a choice when it comes to professional development,” Norden said in an email to the Mercury. “Our goal is to continue adding professional development opportunities and services that will enable our members to serve their communities effectively.”

Keeping the agreement

Some board members have been unsuccessful in swaying their colleagues to retain their membership with VSBA, despite the organization’s long history and track record of advocacy. Others remain optimistic.

“I think you get out of these organizations, what you put into them, and if you choose to attend the professional development conferences and sessions that each organization offers, I think you will get more out of it than you think,” said Robert Hundley Jr., a Hanover County school board member and former VSBA board president, at a June 11 Hanover County School Board meeting.

Other members across the commonwealth expressed concern that leaving VSBA could impact whether their school’s policies and procedures would be updated to ensure the division’s compliance with state laws.

“That’s what it does,” said Orange County Board Member Jack Rickett, who voted against leaving VSBA. “Can other people do that? Yes, they can … Lawyers are going to cost money, and we will have extensive legal fees when we remove ourselves from the VSBA.”

In Rockingham County, board member Jackie Lohr pointed out that VSBA’s position as a lobbyist for school boards gives members a way to influence policymakers that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

“When we’re no longer members, we no longer have a voice, we no longer have a vote,” Lohr said at the June 10 Rockingham school board meeting. “They are a big, big machine and they will continue to lobby, and they have the ears of a lot of politicians and if we’re not there to provide the conservative voice, no one else will be.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Samantha Willis for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and X.

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