School Board Member Alliance takes hold in Isle of Wight

Published 7:00 am Thursday, July 4, 2024

In the wake of a handful of departures from the Virginia School Boards Association, an alternative organization led by a controversial figure is looking to fill the void.

Over the past nine months, the VSBA has seen five of its formerly 132 member boards vote to disaffiliate over allegations that the state association champions causes that clash with board members’ conservative values, though the VSBA denies any partisanship. Isle of Wight County Schools is among the latest to leave.

Four Isle of Wight School Board members, each of whom voted on June 13 to cut ties with the VSBA, are now members of the alternative School Board Member Alliance founded by ex-Suffolk School Board member Sherri Story, who serves as SBMA’s chairwoman and executive director.

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IWCS paid just over $1,500 to the SBMA during the 2023-24 school year, during which the division also maintained its VSBA membership. The $1,500 included $250 apiece in annual SBMA membership dues for School Board Chairman Jason Maresh, Vice Chairman Mark Wooster and member John Collick; $250 apiece in registration fees for Maresh, Collick and board member Brandi Perkins to attend the SBMA’s inaugural December symposium; and a $75 budget tracking webinar attended by Collick, according to an itemized list provided by Board Clerk Jessica Whitlow.

A video on the SBMA’s website says the VSBA has a “monopoly” on the governance training seminars the Virginia Department of Education requires school board members to attend annually. One of SBMA’s goals is to “provide a choice in school board training and advocacy.”

“After four years of VSBA training, many of our founders agreed that VSBA focuses much of their training on what school board members cannot do; SBMA focuses on what board members can do,” Story said.

According to Shelly Norden, SBMA’s marketing and outreach chairwoman, one in 10 Virginia school board members have joined SBMA since its January 2023 founding.

Story said the SBMA recently afforded its members online training through a third party on Title IX, a federal law that protects against sex-based discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding.

Through the SBMA website, members “can access legal memos and guidance that lawyers have written for us and our members on a variety of topics, including some things on FOIA,” Story said, referring to federal and state Freedom of Information Acts.

SBMA’s $250 annual membership dues include “unlimited calls to SBMA staff to answer questions, a monthly newsletter, and select webinars,” Norden said.

“We only take individual members; we set up our bylaws that way,” Story said.

It’s a key difference from the VSBA, which allows only entire school boards to join as a group, and calculates each board’s membership fee based on its school division’s annual operating expenses from the prior year. For 2023-24, IWCS spent $23,853 on VSBA dues, its legal assistance fee, policy review services and the Board Docs platform the School Board uses to disseminate meeting agendas. The School Board plans to continue using Board Docs, which, according to IWCS spokeswoman Lynn Briggs, will cost roughly $12,000 – or $500 more than last year – without the discounted VSBA membership rate.


Is the SBMA nonpartisan?

The SBMA, like the VSBA, says it is nonpartisan. Its website, however, lists endorsements of the organization by nine current and former General Assembly members, all Republicans, including state Sen. Emily Jordan, R-Isle of Wight, whose testimonial praises the SBMA for its focus on “parental rights” and “school choice” – two conservative causes that in recent years have encompassed GOP efforts to require parental consent to check out books deemed “sexually explicit” from school libraries and to allow tax dollars to follow students whose parents move them from a public school to a private one.

Karen Hiltz, a member of SBMA’s board of directors and its secretary, ran unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate while living in Florida in a 2022 GOP primary election against Robert Brackett for the state’s House District 34 seat. While none of the VSBA’s current board members appear to have recently sought party nominations for any state or federal office, the VSBA’s 2023-24 president, Portsmouth School Board member Cardell Patillo, has sought campaign contributions through ActBlue, an online fundraising platform for Democratic and progressive candidates and organizations.

Story herself, as recently as Dec. 29, 2022, was listed as 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.” Story told the Times she hasn’t worked for The Family Foundation since 2022. 

The SBMA’s website touts that boards with SBMA members were among the first to adopt the model transgender student policies Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration released in mid-2023, rolling back policies developed under Youngkin’s Democratic predecessor, Ralph Northam, that had urged schools to conceal a student’s gender identity from parents who may be unsupportive. Isle of Wight adopted the revised policies in October of that year.

Richard Meagher, an expert on municipal governance who chairs the political science department at Randolph Macon College, described the SBMA as “clearly ideologically conservative.”

“School boards have experienced a lot of turnover and political activism during and since the pandemic, and especially in Virginia as Glenn Youngkin made education his chief campaign issue,” said Meagher, whose doctoral dissertation focused in part on the rise of conservative-leaning alternative networks.

The five school boards that have voted to leave the VSBA — Isle of Wight, Bedford, Orange, Rockingham and Warren counties — each have at least one sitting member who’s joined SBMA. All five are largely rural with fewer than 12,000 students enrolled in their public school systems, and whose voters overwhelmingly backed Youngkin in the 2021 elections.

All are also heavily white, according to Census data, but “the more important point is that they have elected conservatives to their school board,” Meagher said, “and a standard mode of conservative politics over the last 50-75 years is to seek out and/or build alternative institutions.”

The SBMA, which received federal 501c3 nonprofit status in 2023, has over the past two years reported up to $50,000 in gross receipts annually on the Internal Revenue Service Form 990-N documents that tax-exempt organizations are required to file.

According to Meagher, 501c3 organizations are allowed to engage in advocacy and lobbying “as long as it’s not a ‘substantial’ part of their purpose.”

“They also have much more leeway to engage in less direct advocacy on public policy issues – like hosting a forum or seminar that advocates for ‘school choice’ or ‘stopping book banning’ without targeting specific legislation,” Meagher said.


Does the SBMA lobby?

Another key difference between the SBMA and the VSBA is that the former, according to Story, does not lobby.

Maresh, who last year described the VSBA as “by far and large a lobbyist organization,” said following the June 13 vote that the VSBA “literally use taxpayer funds” from the dues they collect from member boards “to support lobbying efforts.”

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. 

Maresh described the specific positions VSBA has supported and opposed “irrelevant” and said his primary concern was that “they’re lobbying on the taxpayer’s dime.” He’s pledged to pull out of SBMA should it ever become a lobbying organization.

Story, according to a database maintained by the Virginia Public Access Project, was a registered lobbyist for the SBMA as recently as April, though she maintains she has never made use of that status.

She told the Times she’d registered before a vote by the SBMA’s board of directors on whether to establish a lobbying branch.

“We did not support any legislative bills,” Story said, contending SBMA’s board ultimately voted to focus its efforts on school board governance training.

“We feel that’s a really big need in Virginia,” she said.

According to the VSBA’s stated legislative positions for 2021 through 2023, the state association has repeatedly advocated for expansion of the Virginia Human Rights Act to include students’ sexual orientation and gender identity and opposed Republican-led “school choice” bills. It’s also 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-backed proposal that secured bipartisan support in the 2024 General Assembly before being vetoed by Youngkin.

Isle of Wight is soliciting quotes for a new board attorney, a move division officials say is unconnected to the board’s VSBA disaffiliation. Phinyowattanachip remains its attorney in the meantime.

Gina Patterson, the VSBA’s executive director, told the Times last year, when Isle of Wight first floated the idea of disaffiliating, that 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,” Patterson said.

Kimberly Bridges, a former Richmond school board member and associate professor of education at Virginia Commonwealth University who has provided professional development training to VSBA members, told the Times she has a “longstanding relationship” with the VSBA but “never found one ideology driving anything the association is doing.”

“It’s a democratically run organization,” Bridges said, where the majority of members – rural and urban – decide what, if any, position to take regarding pending legislation.

When largely rural districts like Isle of Wight secede from the VSBA, the state association “is losing that voice,” and the departing members lose opportunities to network with divisions that are larger, with different demographics but facing the same issues as their rural counterparts, she contends.

Nationally, the VSBA has long been an exemplar in, prior to last fall, having 100% of the state’s school boards as members. In other states, that’s not always the case, Bridges said.


The controversies

Story chose not to run for reelection to Suffolk’s School Board in 2022 after the Nansemond-Suffolk NAACP chapter condemned a now-deleted Facebook post calling for a “White Joy” event, though Story says she was being sarcastic and posted the comment in response to a series of “Black Joy in the Outdoors” events hosted by Suffolk Parks and Recreation that year.

“I am absolutely against segregation,” said Story, who said she was “appalled” in 2022 at Suffolk hosting what she described as a “segregated” event.

Two years later, on June 5 of this year, York County Finance Director Theresa Owens sent Story a letter stating that county’s School Board “shall not be allowed to contract with the SBMA” on grounds that Story’s organization had “demonstrated a lack of moral and business integrity.”

The letter alleges Story to have pressured York School Board Chairwoman Kim Goodwin to vote against the May 28 shakeup vote that resulted in Goodwin succeeding her immediate predecessor as chairwoman, Lynda Fairman, in a Zoom call held days ahead of the vote, in which Story allegedly threatened to withdraw SBMA support for Goodwin if she didn’t support Fairman remaining York’s chairwoman.

Story told the Times that she did “strongly communicate” to Goodwin and to Fairman her position that Fairman should have been allowed to serve at least one year as chairwoman per the board’s policy but denied threatening Goodwin.

Owens’ letter cites as its legal basis for the prohibition on further business with the SBMA a county ordinance requiring that any “responsible bidder” offering services to any York County agency or its School Board have “the moral and business integrity and reliability that will assure good faith performance.”

In response, the SBMA retained the Founding Freedoms Law Center, the legal arm of The Family Foundation, which in a June 19 letter asserts the York School Board “has not had any service arrangements to requests pending with the SBMA” since it rescinded votes in April and in May to retain the SBMA for policy services, at $2,900, and governance training at $2,800.

The Virginia Mercury reported on June 17 that SBMA members were also involved in a recent vote by Shenandoah County’s School Board to restore two Confederate school names in a reversal of a 2020 vote by a prior board to rename Stonewall Jackson High School and Ashby-Lee Elementary.

Dennis Barlow, Shenandoah’s chairman, serves as vice chairman of the SBMA, though Story denied her organization had directly pushed for the restoration.

“That is what they wanted to do, and they felt very strongly, and they have every right to do that,” Story said.