Isle of Wight votes 4-1 to withdraw from state school boards association

Published 4:33 pm Monday, June 17, 2024

Fourteen months after floating the idea, Isle of Wight County’s School Board voted 4-1 on June 13 to sever ties with the Virginia School Boards Association.

The VSBA, founded in 1906, provides legal counsel for members, assists in identifying superintendent candidates, develops model policies based on the most recent state and federal laws and court rulings, and advocates for education-related causes in the Virginia General Assembly.

School Board Chairman Jason Maresh, who last year called VSBA “by far and large a lobbyist organization,” joined Vice Chairman Mark Wooster and board members John Collick and Brandi Perkins in voting to end its membership over the objection of board member Michael Cunningham, who cast the lone dissenting vote.

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My primary reason for voting to withdraw from the VSBA is that they literally utilize taxpayer funds to support lobbying efforts,” Maresh said, contending the specific positions VSBA supports or opposes to be “irrelevant” to him.

“I’m not concerned with ‘what’ they lobby for/against, I’m concerned that they’re lobbying on the taxpayer’s dime,” Maresh said.

Stacy Haney, the law partner of Isle of Wight School Board Attorney Pakapon “Pak” Phinyowattanachip, serves as the chief lobbyist for the VSBA, according to the website for the Richmond-based firm that represents over 50 Virginia school boards, including Isle of Wight.

According to Isle of Wight County Schools spokeswoman Lynn Briggs, Phinyowattanachip is contracted separately from the division’s VSBA membership, and as such, will remain the board’s attorney despite the disaffiliation.

Isle of Wight is the latest in a wave of disaffiliations pushed by conservative board members who say the VSBA has become left-leaning, though the organization denies any partisanship. Warren County in Northern Virginia voted 4-1 last fall to sever ties, followed by similar split votes in Orange County in May and Rockingham County this month. Prior to last fall, all 132 Virginia school boards were VSBA members.

Collick, who made the motion to disaffiliate, had last year described the VSBA’s advocacy efforts as “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.

The VSBA has also repeatedly opposed Republican-led “school choice” efforts, which would allow tax dollars to follow children whose parents move them from a public school to a private school, but has advocated in favor of allowing localities to increase their local sales tax rates by voter referendum to fund school construction projects – an Isle of Wight County-backed proposal that secured bipartisan support in the 2024 General Assembly but was vetoed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

VSBA Executive Director Gina Patterson, who did not immediately respond to a request for comments following the Isle of Wight board’s vote, had in an email last year to The Smithfield Times denied her organization has any partisan lean.

Patterson described the VSBA as a “voluntary, nonpartisan organization comprised of the publicly elected as well as appointed school boards in Virginia with a mission to promote excellence in public education through leadership, advocacy, and services.” 

“Membership in the Association is voluntary and has been the choice of all school boards in the Commonwealth for 116 years,” Patterson said. “The VSBA does not exist to provide support for individual school board members or their political leanings. VSBA advocates as a service to our members and based on the unified membership-determined positions.”

“I hate to be one of the few districts in Virginia not a member of this organization that’s been around for years,” Cunningham said.

IWCS Superintendent Theo Cramer also opposed the division’s withdrawal.

“For the record, I absolutely disagree with this decision and I can convey that sentiment for my colleagues in the audience on staff,” Cramer said, adding he would “respect the board and will begrudgingly respect and accept the decision.”


What happens next?

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.

“There’s plenty of options out there; we’re not limited to VSBA just because that’s the way it’s always been done,” Maresh said.

Under the School Board’s bylaws, members are encouraged to attend training from the VDOE’s list of more than 70 education-related organizations, which include the School Board Members Alliance Collick joined as an individual member last year. The SBMA’s website lists governance training for board members in “academic achievement, parental rights, school choice, transparent governance, and fiscal responsibility.”

Maresh said he himself, Collick, Perkins and Wooster are all now individual SBMA members.

“I’ve personally attended one of their in-person training sessions – there was a fee – and I’ve dialed in to several free webinars and online training videos from SBMA,” Maresh said. “So far, I’ve found the SBMA to be (a) useful resource, but if (SBMA) ever becomes a lobbying organization  I’ll walk away from them just the same as I did with VSBA.”

The SBMA, like the VSBA, describes itself as “nonpartisan.” It’s chaired by former Suffolk School Board member Sherri Story, a former lobbyist for The Family Foundation, which works to “encourage the conservative vote” and “advocate for policies based on Biblical principles,” according to the foundation’s website. Story said she left her role with The Family Foundation in 2022 to found the SBMA, and hasn’t done any lobbying since.

According to Briggs, Isle of Wight spent $23,853 on VSBA dues, its legal assistance fee, policy services and the Board Docs platform the School Board uses to disseminate meeting agendas.

“The plan is to still keep Board Docs,” Briggs said.

Board Docs cost the division $11,500 in 2023.

“It will cost $500 more without the VSBA membership,” Briggs said.

According to Maresh, the $500 legal assistance fee covers legal fees up to $3,000 should IWCS be taken to court over a policy allegedly noncompliant with state or federal law.

“That’s a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things,” Maresh said.

The School Board voted separately, also 4-1 with Cunningham dissenting, to name Collick and Wooster to a committee tasked with replacing the VSBA in reviewing the division’s policies for any needed updates. The division’s website lists more than 420 separate policies under their VSBA nomenclature, which categorizes them by chapters A through L. An additional 22 policies were archived and replaced last year with bylaws written by Collick and approved by the board.

“Drafting policies isn’t rocket science as long as you’re following the laws,” Collick said. “I know, I’ve done it both in federal service and in the military.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 1:26 p.m. on June 18 with comments by SBMA Chairwoman Sherri Story.