Dec 7, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Letter comparing parent protests to domestic terrorism triggers funding fallout

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The nation’s leading school board advocacy group is facing a critical loss of funding and membership after sending a letter comparing parent protests and threats to domestic terrorism.

Why it matters: The National School Boards Association has since apologized, but the fallout could be seven figures in annual funding. At least 17 state affiliates have severed ties with the group — and some are even considering establishing a competitor.

  • The 17 state affiliates accounted for more than 40% of annual dues paid to NSBA by its state association members in 2019, according to Axios' analysis of documents detailing those contributions.

The big picture: Officials fear upheaval at the organization — the nation's leading trade group representing U.S. public schools — will handicap it just as national debates over school curricula and COVID-19 mitigation measures dominate the political conversation.

  • The controversy "has weakened a national voice for public education," wrote Steve Gallon III, a Miami-Dade County school board member and chair of NSBA's Council of Urban Boards of Education, in an email to NSBA leadership last month.
  • It "has caused further devastation to the already dangerously fragile financial position of NSBA in the loss of revenue in the millions" and "abated coordinated, national efforts around issues of educational equity," Gallon wrote.

What they're saying: Alabama's school board association let its membership expire "due to long-standing concerns with the organization’s governance," executive director Sally Smith told Axios in a statement.

Smith called the letter and fallout "symptoms of that dysfunction."

Long-standing concerns also were cited by North Carolina and Florida school board associations.

  • "We have no confidence that NSBA can effectively meet those needs, so we will be pursuing other options to provide these services to Alabama's school board members," Smith added.
  • North Carolina school board leadership also cited efforts to work with other associations, to ensure national advocacy continues in a memo provided to Axios.
  • Widespread concerns were evident in a report compiled by state associations in early 2020, which stressed, among other issues, a new dues payment structure that required greater financial commitments from state associations.

By the numbers: The 17 state associations that have cut ties with NSBA collectively paid $1.1 million in annual dues to the organization in 2019, according to NSBA records submitted at a recent Florida School Boards Association meeting.

  • That was about 42% of the $2.6 million in dues payments it got from state school boards associations that year, and $1 of every $8 in total dues revenue.
  • The group gets more dues income directly from school districts, with more than 1,200 providing nearly $5.3 million this year, according to NSBA records. Like the state associations, some of those districts also have severed ties with the group this fall.
  • The $1.1 million figure likely undercounts state associations' financial support, which also includes contributions related to NSBA conferences and events.
  • The Montana School Boards Association, for instance, initially budgeted for $68,000 in 2021-22 dues payments. But it estimated its total financial commitment to be much higher, at nearly $160,000. It voted last month to leave the NSBA.

An NSBA spokesperson told Axios the 2019 numbers "do not reflect the complete or current state of affairs for NSBA" but declined to elaborate.

  • "NSBA continues to have the resources we need to be effective on behalf of our members, and we will relentlessly work to advance our mission and continuously improve as an organization," the spokesperson said.

Some state associations are nonetheless in talks about creating a new national advocacy group that would compete with NSBA — and potentially poach other members.

  • The Florida School Boards Association recently amended its bylaws to strike a requirement that it maintain NSBA membership, and to allow for membership in an alternative national or regional organization.
  • "With an investment available on par with what we are currently spending on engagement in NSBA, we could viably recreate these services through another mechanism in collaboration with others," the Montana association wrote in an internal memo.
  • The Pennsylvania School Boards Association has started gauging interest among other states in creating a new such umbrella group.
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