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The two state school boards associations that earned the 2022 Leading Edge award showcase the exemplary work of NSBA members. Following an exceptionally challenging year, this recognition highlights the tireless work of state and local leaders to provide an equitable and excellent public education for all students.

The Indiana School Boards Association (ISBA) was recognized for its Legislative Action Network (LAN) and the Virginia School Boards Association for its Task Force on Students and Schools in Challenging Environments.

“The pandemic put a spotlight on the important role and incredibly difficult decisions that education leaders had to make,” says NSBA interim Executive Director and CEO Chip Slaven. “State associations stepped up to support their members, as evidenced by ISBA and VSBA’s excellent work to ensure the school board voice is heard in state capitals.”

Established in 2018, NSBA’s Leading Edge Award recognizes its member state school boards associations for innovative services that support the work of school boards and districts in their states.

Indiana: LAN

Nearly 150 bills on K-12 education are introduced every session of the Indiana General Assembly. ISBA’s Legislative Action Network (LAN) provides its 1,700 members with the tools, resources, and messaging so they can help influence the outcomes of the legislative session.

LAN started as part of the association’s 2018 strategic plan to strengthen its advocacy efforts. The board of directors “felt it was time that we elevated our efforts to provide visibility and more influence at the State House on a regular basis,” says Executive Director Terry Spradlin.

ISBA asks each of the state’s 290 school boards to designate a legislative liaison. Those liaisons, says Spradlin, help coordinate advocacy efforts and share guidance and strategies with their board colleagues, administrators, and the school community.

These school board member legislative liaisons play a crucial role. ISBA employs two registered lobbyists (Spradlin and General Counsel Lisa Tanselle) who are at the statehouse daily when the legislature is in session. But lawmakers also need to hear from their constituents to help them understand the impact of the bills they are considering. “Much is at stake in today's environment politically and socially,” Spradlin says. “And if we don't stand up to support and defend public education, who will?”


Legislators have said they want to hear from local school board members, says Tanselle. The lobbyists’ state-level perspective is valuable, but board members can let their elected representatives know how an issue will impact their schools and their students.

“When we recruit the school board members to focus on legislative priorities, she says, “it has given us the opportunity to have those priorities become a reality and materialize into bills that are passed by the General Assembly.”

A recent example: School board members appreciated the flexibility from the governor for remote participation in school board meetings during the pandemic. ISBA’s Legislative Committee identified this flexibility as a priority and was involved in getting a Senate and House sponsor to get that bill drafted.

Ind. State Rep. Ed Delaney is in his13th year in the Indiana General Assembly, and he serves on two pivotal committees: the Education Committee and the Ways and Means Committee. Conversations between school board members and the lawmakers on those committees are essential, he says.

Nearly half of the state budget goes to education, and it is responsible for about two-thirds of the funding school districts receive. “We decide how much money they're going to get,” he says. “The school board members and the school superintendents need to be at the State House and talk to their representative to make sure they remember that that’s who's really serving the students and talk to people like myself who are on the committees to make sure we understand the policy.”

LAN helps inform school board members about the issues and offers support so they can communicate to the Indiana General Assembly, says Steve Corona.

Corona, who is a member of the Fort Wayne Community School Board and a member of ISBA’s board of directors, continues: “The men and women that serve in the State House have a lot of things on their mind. They're getting lots of messages from a lot of groups that want this, want that. We must make sure that our message is being sent to them in simple terms and sent to them repeatedly.”

Other services offered by ISBA as part of LAN include advocacy training for school board members, as part of new board member training as well as special webinars for all members on how to engage in the legislative process.

ISBA produces an advocacy guide with tips on lobbying members of the Indiana General Assembly. Every Friday during the legislative session, it issues a weekly legislative update. During the session, school board members receive “call to action” alerts “when we have to ask our board members to speak up and speak out and call their area legislators, email, or write their legislators on significant issues,” says Spradlin.


ISBA provides an automated bill tracking service and conducts live legislative update webinars with prominent legislators. In 2018, it instituted an annual State House Day. This event gives school board members direct access to the House and Senate leaders and education committee decisionmakers. Online resources for members include white papers and talking points.

Barr-Reeve Community School Board member Alex Knepp has served for a year in the LAN. His participation has led him to realize that while making local decisions for your school and community are important, “It’s equally important that we play a role in influencing the policy that our schools are going to have to operate under. And the Legislative Action Network is a tremendously impactful way to be able to do that.”

The LAN “has been an outstanding boon for public schools in Indiana,” says ISBA president Robert Stwalley, who is also president of the school board of the Lafayette School Corporation. A decade ago, he says, “we had a very aggressively negative session in the state legislature. And the board of directors here for ISBA made the decision we weren't going to let this happen again.”

It’s taken time to build the network of local school board advocates, he says, but the results are evident in the amount of money and support that public schools receive. The lawmakers knew that there were people in all the local districts who had serious concerns about the level of state funding.

“We had the best year this year out of the state legislature that we’ve probably had in nearly 20 years,” says Stwalley. “I think that was primarily due to the efforts of our local people in our Legislative Action Network.”


Virginia: Equity focus and action

In 2013, the Virginia School Boards Association (VSBA) and the Norfolk Public Schools jointly filed a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of a state law that eroded the local control of school boards. The state sought to take over certain schools it labeled as “failing” and eliminate the school boards. In addition, VSBA and others around the state objected to using the word failing to describe schools.

VSBA and Norfolk won the lawsuit, and local control remained with the local school board. “But we knew that we need to take a hard look at the state. And there were certain schools, certain districts, certain populations that weren’t being served,” says VSBA Executive Director Gina Patterson. “We were doing a disservice as an association if we didn’t really put our heads together and try to find the best solution to make those schools more successful.”

The result was VSBA’s formation of the Task Force on Students and Schools in Challenging Environments. The task force is made up of school board members, as well as superintendents, members of the business community, higher education, and others.

“We have been very deliberate since 2013 about the fact that we need to be very vigilant in the work that we’re doing as a task force to actually have results show best practices to local divisions around the state,” says Patterson.


The task force has produced two reports with research-based equity best practices for Virginia school systems and is working on a third. The research is essential to the work of the task force. Equity work, says task force co-chair Rodney Jordan, can many times be based on personal anecdotes and stereotypical tropes.

“Everybody says that they want positive student outcomes,” says Jordan, who is the immediate past president of VSBA and a member of the Norfolk City School Board. “Everybody says that they want to follow the data, and they want to be rooted in research.” The task force’s recommendations are backed up by research so that decisions are made on what is good for children, rather than other reasons.

VSBA disseminates information in the reports throughout the year. Its annual conference has a programming track for equity issues. It holds specific conferences based on the work of the task force to provide data and information boards can take back to their districts. Other vehicles include webinars, podcasts, and newsletter articles. VSBA staff has presented findings to Virginia governors, the state department of education, and the state board of education.

“Anyone who will listen to the work that we feel needs to be done in order for these students to be successful, we have tried to get in front of that audience,” says Patterson. “To us, this isn’t new. We will continue to do this until we see that the playing field is equal for all when it comes to student achievement around the State of Virginia.”


Through the reports, Winchester Public Schools board member Karen Anderson Holman says the task force “did the hard work of sifting through the data. We know intuitively that equity is the right thing to do. But sometimes, in order for the right thing to happen, you have to demonstrate that there really is the need for it. The Task Force reviewed the data of the schools that continued to face certification challenges and found that most of those schools were schools that were in high-poverty areas, or they were schools that have a high percentage of children of color.”

The task force, she says, has highlighted best practices in Virginia around five areas: community engagement, funding of resources, training, student learning, and teacher quality. “They’ve also done a great job of laying down the foundation for the importance of equity and helping to communicate that to teachers, superintendents, the public, and to our legislators as well.”

Mark Lineburg, superintendent of schools Halifax County, is co-chair of the task force and helps with the research for the reports. VSBA’s training has impacted schools, he says, and “you see schools now that have done better as a result of it.”

Also important is the awareness that the task force creates on students facing challenging situations, not on “failing” schools. “Just washing that away helps student learning as much as anything, especially from the board perspective,” he says.

Changing the narrative from failing schools to challenged schools is one of the important achievements of the task force, says Patterson. “Think about that student in a school that you have labeled failing. Think about what that means to that student or that parent. There is a challenge in every school in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It may look different, but when you desegregate that data, there are challenges all over. It’s how we shape that narrative.”

Janice Underwood is the nation’s first cabinet-level Chief Diversity Officer to serve in a Governor’s cabinet. As a member of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s cabinet, she works with VSBA on equity issues with the task force.

Underwood lauds the task force and VSBA for being “laser-focused” on equity long before the current emphasis in the state and in the country.

Equity discussions for some school boards and communities can be flashpoints for controversy, but these conversations can also be the basis for understanding and consensus.


“What is so exciting about the task force is that they’re willing to partner with stakeholders all around the Commonwealth, including my office,” says Underwood, “So that we can continue having these conversations.”

The task force’s approach to finding and disseminating equity best practices for Virginia school districts is key, says Iris Lane, Westmoreland County Public Schools board member and an at-large member of VSBA’s board. It did not use a one-size-fits-all solution.

School districts serve varied communities and students, and what works in one district may not be suited to another. One might need an after-school program, and another may look at wraparound services like telehealth services for students.

Lane says, “The task force has opened the door so that all school districts can look at things that they may not have thought they could provide before, but now they know they can.

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