FL School Boards Association withdrew from national affiliate; Was it a partisan move or not?

The FL group is now looking into forming a new coalition of state school boards associations. But would that be good or bad?

By: - December 15, 2021 7:00 am

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When a letter from the National School Boards Association urged the Biden administration to do something about reports of threats and violence against school board members, it didn’t go well,  particularly with conservative groups who claimed that the letter painted some parents as “domestic terrorists.”

Now, several state school boards that were members of the organization have cut ties with the national group, including the Florida School Boards Association, and they’re looking into forming a new coalition of state school boards associations.

But what would a new state school boards association look like? Would the states in the mix be considered conservative? Liberal? Nonpartisan? The Florida association claims the national board has been considered partisan, a key reason to leave that group.

The developments raise a political question: is disassociating from a group that is believed to be a partisan organization, in of itself, a partisan move?

GOP lawmakers are already pushing legislation to switch local school board elections from nonpartisan to partisan.

The letter to Biden

A surgical mask and a KN95 mask hang on display for sale at a pharmacy. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

Earlier in the 2021-22 academic year, COVID-19 cases had spiked with the spread of the delta variant.  School boards were considering protocols, such as strict mask mandates, for how to best protect students and staff against the virus. Several boards defied the Republican DeSantis administration’s mask policy.

Parent involvement increased at Florida’s public schools and its local boards. Mellow board meetings sometimes became disorderly and even frightening events, as some parents opposed mask mandates. Some board members faced threatening texts, vandalism and other forms of harassment.

The National School Boards Association (NSBA) sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Sept. 29 asking for help in dealing with “the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation” against local school board members, and outlined instances of harassment to local education officials throughout the United States.

“As these acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials have increased, the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes,” the letter reads.  That line became a point of contention among critics.

Some affiliates, including the Florida School Boards Association (FSBA), felt that the letter did not represent them and quickly distanced themselves from it.

However, Andrea Messina, executive director of the FSBA, told the Phoenix that the statewide association has had concerns about the national group long before the Biden letter about violence against school board members.

The concerns related to governance, leadership, transparency, and failure to embrace non-partisanship with the NSBA, according to Messina.

“There were concerns that certain members of the executive committee made decisions without board of director knowledge. There were executive decisions held on issues that did not warrant executive sessions. There were financial concerns….things like that,” Messina told the Phoenix.

Ultimately, the NSBA apologized for the Biden letter.

“We apologize also for the strain and stress this situation has caused you and your organizations,” the NSBA said in a statement on Oct. 22, and said that the association would engage in a formal review of its internal processes and procedures.

The vote

According to Messina, the decision to officially withdraw from the national organization was made by the 32-member FSBA board of directors in an “overall yay or nay vote,” not a roll call vote, at a conference in late November.

There were 27 members who represented the state’s local school boards and five executive officers. It was unanimous, according to Messina.

But there was another vote, which was to allow the Florida School Boards Association to potentially join a new national organization of state school boards associations.

“It’s yet to be seen about what it will be named and how it will be, but at least we have the room now to start something like that,” Brevard School Board Member Katye Campbell told the Phoenix. She serves on the FSBA’s board of directors and participated in both votes.

“One of the things that was enticing was being a part of forming it,” Campbell said. “If we agree now to do it, we can be a charter member and have more say into the structure the policies, the format, all of that as founding members.”

Messina said she has been a participant in the talks, but the current conversation is “exploratory” in nature and that “nothing official” has come out yet. For FSBA, she said that the paramount focus would be making sure that the new group was nonpartisan.

Other states

Justin Pauly, director of communications for the Georgia School Boards Association, which also voted to withdraw from the NSBA, told the Phoenix that there are now conversations among states that have withdrawn from the NSBA about what to do next.

“There’s been some discussions of creating some sort of collaboration – is there some opportunity to create some national advocacy effort? But things are still developing,” Pauly said. “Other states are still making decisions. And so, we just don’t have a full picture of what that will look like at this point.”

“I think certainly that (forming a new national association) is a possibility, but none of those decisions have been finalized. Just exploring all the options right now,” Pauly said.

The Alabama Association of School Boards also withdrew from the organization. So did the Louisiana School Boards Association, they told the Phoenix. These two states voted for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

And while Georgia just barely voted in favor of Biden in 2020, helping him secure the win, Florida’s neighboring state is generally considered Republican in nature. Florida’s governor is a Republican and GOP leaders control the state Senate and House.

However, it’s not just red states leaving the NSBA. The Illinois Association of School Boards voted to leave as well, stating similar concerns to the FSBA: “governance structure, transparency, and financial oversight of the national association.”

Super Crazy Conservative-right

But for Brevard School Board member member Jennifer Jenkins, withdrawing from the NSBA and forming a new group is “completely a a partisan move — one thousand percent.”

Brevard School Board member Jennifer Jenkins. Credit: Brevard County School District.

“They’re (FSBA) going to join all of the other states that have left NSBA, which happen to be 95 percent super red states,” she told the Phoenix. “It just feels like were going to see the formation of some super crazy conservative-right school boards association.”

Jenkins has gained national attention for her experiences with some of the violent threats targeted towards local school board members.

She wrote a Washington Post column outlining some of those experiences, including people showing up to her house and burning ‘FU’ in her lawn with weed killer and someone falsely reporting child abuse of her kid to the Florida Department of Children and Family Services.

She said that everything in that NSBA letter raised alarms about the safety of school board members, and it “was real.”

“I lived that stuff that was in that letter. It’s frustrating to me that people can’t see that,” she said.

“One of the things they (FSBA) claimed upset them about that letter was calling parents ‘terrorists,’” Jenkins told the Phoenix. “I think that’s a ridiculous narrative from one party, because what I like to say is, I’m not calling all parents ‘terrorists,’ I’m calling parents who terrorize me ‘terrorists.’”

As to the status of local school board elections, Messina with the FSBA says the organization would be opposed to legislation that would create partisan school boards.

“We believe that school board elections should continue to be non-partisan.” She said that the main concern would be that No Party Affiliation voters could be disenfranchised.

Because Florida has closed primaries, NPA voters cannot participate in the primary election in either party.

“School boards typically represent government closest to the citizens and involves their children, and we don’t want to disenfranchise any voters,” Messina said.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.