IW School Board will stay in state association

Published 6:45 pm Friday, June 30, 2023

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School Board Vice Chairman Jason Maresh walked back his April proposal to withdraw Isle of Wight County Schools from the Virginia School Boards Association, and joined the board’s four other members in a unanimous vote on June 8 to renew the school division’s roughly $9,700 annual membership dues.

Maresh, however, said he plans to revisit the issue next year provided he’s reelected in November.

The VSBA, founded in 1906, describes itself on its website as a “voluntary, nonpartisan organization of Virginia school boards.” Among its stated goals is to “advocate effectively for Virginia’s public schools and children before all levels of government and the public.”

Maresh, in April, had described the VSBA as “by far and large a lobbyist organization.”

According to the organization’s legislative positions for 2021 through 2023, the VSBA has repeatedly advocated for the expansion of the Virginia Human Rights Act to include students’ sexual orientation and gender identity. The VSBA has also repeatedly opposed Republican-led “school choice” efforts, which would allow tax dollars to follow children whose parents remove them from a public school and enroll them in a private one. 

Haney Phinyowattanachip, a Richmond-based law firm that represents over 50 school boards, including Isle of Wight, also serves as “chief lobbyist” for the VSBA, according to the firm’s website.

Board Chairman John Collick had asserted in April that the VSBA’s supported causes run contrary to his “family values.” He’d run for his seat in 2021 with the endorsement of the county’s Republican Party on a platform of opposition to transgender student policies and Critical Race Theory, which argues American institutions have perpetuated inequalities among minorities. Maresh and board member Mark Wooster also ran on conservative platforms in their bids for seats on the School Board last year.

“The fact that we’re funding an organization so that they can go to Richmond and lobby on legislation that some of us, or all of us, may not agree on, I find issue with,” Maresh said, but added that now is “probably not the right time to withdraw.”

Collick stated at the June 8 meeting that he too was “not an advocate of pulling from the VSBA” at this time.

All 132 Virginia school divisions are presently VSBA members. Board member Denise Tynes urged against withdrawing from the VSBA now or in the future, noting “we’re the only school district in the state of Virginia that’s had this conversation.”

Maresh had brought up the matter of withdrawing from the VSBA in April after controversy in March over Collick’s use of School Board funds to pay his $250 membership fee for the School Board Members Alliance.

The board voted 3-2, also at the June 8 meeting, to authorize individual board members to request School Board reimbursement for joining the SBMA.

Under Article 10 of bylaws written by Collick, board members are “encouraged to attend” training from the Virginia Department of Education’s list of “education-related organizations,” which now includes the SBMA. The SBMA, like the VSBA, describes itself as “nonpartisan.” Its priorities, according to its website, are to promote “governance training” focused on “parental rights” and “school choice,” and to “advocate for educational freedom for Virginia families.”

Tynes and board member Michael Cunningham cast “nay” votes, Tynes on grounds that the SBMA is “not a racially diverse organization” and Cunningham on grounds that the SBMA has “not proven themselves yet,” having been founded less than a year ago.

A video on the SBMA’s website contends Virginia’s public schools have “made national news for all the wrong reasons” and includes clips from news broadcasts, including one by ousted Fox News host Tucker Carlson claiming an equity-focused “radical new curriculum” teaching “white people oppress everyone” was in place at schools “all over” the United States. It is run by a 10-member board of directors chaired by former Suffolk School Board member Sherri Story, who is herself 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.”