Withdraw Isle of Wight County Schools from state school board association?

Published 3:51 pm Friday, April 14, 2023

The Virginia School Boards Association boasts 100% membership among all 132 school divisions in the state, but could become minus one if Jason Maresh gets his way.

Maresh, vice chairman of Isle of Wight County’s School Board, has asked for a review of the cost versus benefit of continuing the division’s membership.

The VSBA, founded in 1906, describes itself on its website as a “voluntary, nonpartisan organization of Virginia school boards” that “promotes excellence in public education through leadership, advocacy and services.” Among its stated goals is to “advocate effectively for Virginia’s public schools and children before all levels of government and the public.”

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The VSBA provides its members with legal counsel, assists in the superintendent hiring process and develops model school board policies based on the most recent state and federal laws and court rulings.

Isle of Wight County Schools spent roughly $39,000 this school year to maintain its VSBA membership, according to Maresh. At the School Board’s April 6 meeting, Maresh characterized the VSBA as “by far and large a lobbyist organization.”

“Personally, I’m not a big fan of the VSBA. … I’d just as soon put that money into a separate little bucket and send some kids on a field trip,” Maresh said.

Haney Phinyowattanachip, a Richmond-based law firm that represents over 50 Virginia school boards, including Isle of Wight, also serves as the “chief lobbyist” for the VSBA, according to the firm’s website. 

Board Chairman John Collick, at the same meeting, played down the notion of an imminent departure from the VSBA.

“The training there is very good,” Collick said.

The VSBA offers governance training to help school boards comply with the Virginia Department of Education’s requirement that each board member participate annually in seminars at the state, local or national level on personnel evaluation, curriculum and instruction, use of data in decision-making and current issues in education. Each school board must then certify to the state in an annual compliance report that all its members have met the requirement.

“The piece that I don’t care for is the lobbying efforts,” Collick said.

“One hundred percent of what they lobby for,” Collick asserted, “is against my family values and my religious values.”

According to the organization’s stated legislative positions for 2021 through 2023, the VSBA has repeatedly advocated for expansion of the Virginia Human Rights Act to include students’ sexual orientation and gender identity.

Collick, who secured the endorsement of the county’s Republican Party when he ran for his seat in 2021, had campaigned on a platform of opposition to transgender student policies and Critical Race Theory, which argues American laws and institutions have perpetuated inequalities among minorities. Two other then-candidates – Maresh and Mark Wooster – also billed themselves as the conservative choice in their respective School Board races in 2022.

The VSBA has also repeatedly opposed Republican-led “school choice” efforts, which would allow tax dollars to follow children whose parents pull them out of a public school and enroll them in a private one. The organization, however, has also advocated allowing localities to increase their local sales tax rates by voter referendum to fund school construction projects – a proposal Isle of Wight County has supported for several years.

Collick went on to describe a VSBA conference he attended following Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 election as having the feel of a “wake” at a funeral because “the Democrats had lost.”

VSBA Executive Director Gina Patterson, in an email to The Smithfield Times, denied that her organization has any partisan lean.

“The VSBA does not exist to provide support for individual school board members or their political leanings,” Patterson said. “VSBA advocates as a service to our members and based on the unified membership-determined positions.”

School Board member Denise Tynes called the idea of pulling out of the VSBA a “major mistake.”

“Don’t change things if it’s not broken,” Tynes said.

School Board member Michael Cunningham said that Isle of Wight has been a VSBA member for “well over 50 years.”

Maresh said he requested a discussion of the VSBA following last month’s controversy over Collick’s use of School Board funds to pay for his individual membership in the newly formed School Board Members Alliance.

Under Article 10 of bylaws written by Collick and approved by a 3-2 vote in February, board members are “encouraged to attend” training from the Virginia Department of Education’s list of “education-related organizations,” which now includes the SBMA. Isle of Wight County Schools’ February check register showed a $250 payment to SBMA for Collick’s membership fee.

The SBMA, like the VSBA, describes itself as “nonpartisan.” Its priorities, according to its website, are to promote “governance training” focused on “parental rights” and “school choice,” and “advocate for educational freedom for Virginia families.”

A video on the SBMA’s website contends Virginia’s public schools “have made national news for all the wrong reasons,” and includes clips from news broadcasts, including one by Fox News host Tucker Carlson claiming an equity-focused “radical new curriculum” was teaching students “all over” the United States that “white people oppress everyone.”

SBMA is run by a 10-member board of directors chaired by Sherri Story, a controversial former Suffolk School Board member who chose not to run for reelection in 2022 after the Nansemond-Suffolk NAACP chapter condemned her now-deleted Facebook post calling for a “White Joy” event as racist. Story is a registered lobbyist for The Family Foundation, an organization that, according to its website, works to “encourage the conservative vote” and “advocate for policies based on Biblical principles.”

Collick, at the April 6 meeting, defended the use of school funds for his membership.

“As a board member, I have the right to belong to an organization that really mirrors … some of my beliefs,” Collick said.

“I would pull out of VSBA,” Maresh said, but “that’s not what I’m suggesting tonight.”

In March, the board voted unanimously to authorize Cramer to issue a request for proposals for alternative providers of legal services. Collick, in an email to the Times, said the vote had nothing to do with the subsequent discussion of the VSBA.

Mr. Phinyowattanachip has done a good job since I’ve been on the board, but because the contract was signed more than three years ago and has no end date, I believed it should be recompeted and the rest of the board agreed,” Collick said, noting he’d informed the law firm before placing the matter on the March agenda.

Phinyowattanachip “will remain the school board attorney unless another firm’s proposal is approved by the school board” as a result of the RFP, Collick said.

Phinyowattanachip did not immediately respond to the Times’ requests for comments on the request-for-proposals vote.