News: CJ Exclusives

N.C. School Boards Preparing To Embrace Political Advocacy

NCSBA Action Center would use 'contributions' to lobby lawmakers

Alarmed by what it perceived as a legislative agenda that was encroaching on local school boards’ oversight of education, and unnerved by a lack of support from the business community, the North Carolina School Boards Association has created an advocacy organization to protect its interests and promote its agenda.

Government watchdogs and some local school board members are wary of the organization using tax money to lobby for still more public money for schools and using tax funds to promote a political agenda for tax-paid elected officials.

“Local school board authority is coming under attack by a growing chorus of political and business leaders who believe that school boards are not doing what is needed to effectively educate our children and that school boards are, in fact, one of the biggest impediments to educational progress and reform,” stated an Aug. 7 memorandum sent statewide to local school superintendents and school boards.

The memo was released jointly by Evelyn Bulluck, the association’s president, and Tim Morgan, a member of the NCSBA board of directors and president of the newly created North Carolina School Boards Action Center, a 501(c)4 advocacy organization.

The memo said the Action Center, created April 26, will operate under an IRS tax structure that allows for greater lobbying and grass-roots activity than the NCSBA has under its 501(c)3 charter.

The Action Center’s board of directors comprises four school board members on the NCSBA board of directors, and five school board members who do not sit on the association’s board.

“What we face today is a battle for survival, both of public education as we know it and of the model of the locally elected board governance of public school system operations,” the memo said.

“Our ability to endure in the face of these extraordinary challenges requires that we recognize and accept the changed environment in which we operate and embrace new ideas and concepts in how we advocate,” the memo said.

“We’re facing challenges not only from the General Assembly but things that are coming from [the state Department of Public Instruction],” Morgan said in an interview.

“There’s a lot going on right now, a lot of different narratives, and the board felt that it was important for us to be in position, not only for the [2014] short session but to gear up for the [2015] long session a year out, to make sure our voices are heard and to be able to communicate with the general public, with parents, with teachers, with educators to make sure they’re aware of our issues and concerns that we’re working on,” Morgan said.

“I am not surprised that the NCSBA plans to escalate their advocacy efforts. The current Republican leadership in the state legislature is not as compliant as their Democratic predecessors were. And compliance was good for business,” said Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.

“North Carolinians should demand that their local school board refuses to fund the N.C. School Boards Action Center. Tax dollars have no business being used to further the political agenda of any organization, let alone one that operates far from the mainstream,” Stoops said.

“The NCSBA had two options — either cultivate strong relationships with the current leadership in the General Assembly or try to replace them,” he said. “By choosing the latter, they decided to be bridge burners, rather than bridge builders, in their approach to the legislature.”

Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, also was wary of funding for the Action Center.

“I don’t know that I’m crazy about them spending tax money for advocacy,” Pinsky said. “If individual school board members want to pay for it with their own money that’s one thing, but public money raises questions.”

She further questioned the need for greater lobbying, noting that the School Boards Association already has two lobbyists. One of them, Leanne Winner, has been named by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research as one of the most effective lobbyists in the General Assembly.

“I’m not by nature anti-education [or] anti-advocacy. But this doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Pinsky said. She believes most parents already are familiar with education issues and what school boards do.

Bryan Shoemaker, a member of the Iredell-Statesville Schools Board of Education, said he received a memo from the School Boards Association about creation of the Action Center.

“The memo does not tell me what our district will be getting for the $6,000 contribution,” Shoemaker said. The annual allocation is on a sliding scale based on school district enrollment.

“To date, our system has not discussed joining this new group. We plan on discussing it at our Sept. 3 board meeting,” Shoemaker said. “I would like to know more about what type of ‘advocacy and grass-roots engagement’ this organization will be involved with.”

The school district is laying off employees, and without further information, “I do not feel like we can justify spending any money for something we can do on our own for free,” Shoemaker said.

“Most of our board members have great relationships with our General Assembly members already,” he said.

Morgan, vice chairman of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, said starting in September, Action Center officials will meet with local school boards at eight regional meetings.

The legislative agenda will be based on feedback from those face-to-face meetings, and put to a vote of members at the school boards association’s annual meeting in November.

The Action Center could hire lobbyists, Web page editors, marketing personnel, and other staff as needed. Efforts could involve both grass-roots education and activism.

A school board’s decision to join the Action Center is voluntary, and it is up to the board to determine the source of annual fees.

“If they want to use tax dollars, they could. If they want to go out and have businesses or others pay for it in their behalf, they could do that,” Morgan said.

Items likely to appear on the Action Center’s legislative agenda include efforts by counties to take ownership of school properties, new DPI testing models used in Measures for Student Learning, pay-for-performance for school teachers, and restoration of pay increases for teachers who earn master’s degrees, Morgan said.

Dan Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.