The Warren County School Board during its Wednesday, August 3 regular meeting voted unanimously to table action until the board’s next work session on whether to renew its membership and policy services agreement with the Virginia School Boards Association (VSBA).
The VSBA is a voluntary, nonpartisan organization of Virginia school boards that provides members with a variety of services, including governance training; strategic planning services for developing and implementing focused plans of action; assistance with searching and selecting a superintendent; networking; subscriber policy services based on state and federal laws, regulations, and case law; legal information and limited attorney consultation; and collective bargaining services.
“For years the Warren County Board has been a member of the Virginia School Boards Association at an annual cost of $9,521.19,” Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) Superintendent Christopher Ballenger told the School Board members, adding that the VSBA also offers high-quality webinars, conferences, conventions, meetings, podcasts, and other trainings for school board members and for school board development.
At the same time, said Ballenger, the VSBA also provides “a strong lobbying and advocacy voice locally, statewide, and nationally.”
Several School Board members voiced concerns about using taxpayer dollars to fund an organization’s lobbying efforts.
“Obviously I’ve had issues with the VSBA for quite some time now,” said board member Melanie Salins, who pointed out that while the group calls itself nonpartisan, she said she has attended VSBA trainings and events where specific political agendas were being promoted .
For instance, Salins said the VSBA Capital Conference she attended in January was a lobbying conference that she called “extremely uncomfortable” because it “alienated a lot of the new school board members that were there because most of the school board members were conservatives.”
And “the things that were said were outright outlandish,” Salins said. “They were making fun of parents. They were making fun of our Republican delegates and senators.”
Salins then played a video through her microphone of some of the comments that she said were made during that conference. It was unclear who was making the variety of comments or in what context. “I don’t think lobbying belongs on this board,” said Salins, who later clarified that no taxpayer dollars should fund any lobbying group, whether it leans left or right.
During the community participation segment of the board’s Wednesday meeting, two residents also slammed the School Board’s participation in the VSBA and urged members against renewing its membership with the association for 2022-2023.
Then Morris said, “Why use our taxpayer dollars to fund a leftist lobbying group?”
Also during the community participation segment of the School Board’s meeting, Chair Kristen Pence read letters sent in from seven residents objecting to the board’s membership in the VSBA, which they claimed is a partisan and heavily biased organization that is also anti-parent.
School Board member Andrea Lo said her experience with VSBA differed compared to Salins’ and she described a VSBA conference she attended in November 2021 that was not a lobbying conference nor did anyone specifically address politics. Instead, said Lo, the conference attendees “specifically addressed schools.”
During one of the conference’s general sessions, Lo also said an announcement was made that the VSBA was withdrawing from the National School Boards Association (NSBA) because the NSBA had supported comments reportedly made by President Joe Biden about investigating parents who were speaking at school board meetings.
“I feel if there are some points where liberals are upset and some points where conservatives are upset, maybe [VSBA] is more middle of the road,” said Lo, adding that the VSBA is a member-driven organization that responded to what the local members wanted in this instance, which was against VSBA supporting NSBA and comments made by a Democratic president. “I don’t think that’s a liberal move,” she said.
Lo also questioned what other policy advice would be available to the Warren County School Board if it decided against renewing its policy services agreement with VSBA. And she asked Ballenger if he had parsed out such information from the board’s attorney.
The superintendent said he did, noting that in the first year the initial cost to the School Board would be $40,000 to $50,000 to have an attorney come in and review policies, their implementation and use, and to ensure they adhere to state or federal laws. After that, the price would vary year to year based on newly issued or updated laws and guidance.
“I want to make sure that at a time when we’re still trying to get our budget for the 2022-23 school year approved, we’re not now going to add $50,000 or $40,000 in attorney’s fees to make sure we don’t come into a liability issue,” School Board Chair Kristen Pence said. “What is our other plan?”
Ballenger said another plan could be for a WCPS Central Office staff member “to follow what is going on legislatively.” Then, if Warren County decided to handle this work on its own, the school division and board would have to go through such legislation and try to write their own policies according to what came out in a new law or updated guidance, for instance. But that work would also have to be reviewed by an attorney who would charge on a case-by-case basis, he said.
Ballenger said he is unaware of another entity that could provide such services besides what is provided by the VSBA or an attorney, and he said it is important that the School Board makes sure its policies are regularly updated. “Because that’s where you can get into trouble,” he said.
“We have to make sure we’re supported in our policies,” Funk said. “I’m not comfortable deciding on this right now because I need to know what our plan is moving forward.”
School Board Vice Chair Ralph Rinaldi seconded the motion, which was approved by all board members, including Vice Chair Ralph Rinaldi, Pence, Funk, Lo, and Salins. They also tabled a related item on selecting a delegate and alternate delegate from the School Board to attend the 2022 VSBA Annual Convention.
Most of the School Board members agreed that the board should not use taxpayer money to fund VSBA’s lobbying efforts.
Watch the Warren County School Board meeting of August 3, 2022 here.