July/August 2017

Cynthia S. Woods, IASB director of government relations for advocacy, is retiring this summer after 23 years with the Association.

When I was seated on my school board at Glen Ellyn SD 41 in 1983, our board president asked if I would chair the legislative committee. Having only moved to Illinois six years earlier, I had no idea about Illinois legislative process, let alone public school legislative issues. Nonetheless, I accepted the challenge of the role and became very active in grassroots groups and lobbying, locally and in Springfield.

At first, I was hesitant to talk to legislators. But I soon learned they are no different from the rest of us, and all you need to do is say “hello” and you’re off!

One of my first visits to Springfield was scheduled to meet with our local state representative, Ralph Barger. Our board wanted his attention on a specific bill and asked me to speak with him. I decided to bring some homemade chocolate chip cookies to help sweeten the encounter. I got mercilessly teased by other board members from neighboring districts, as well as by my own board. But let me tell you, after that he knew me better than any other education person and always made time for me.

I like to share that I am one of very few people who can say their volunteer work got them their job and new career. It was being a school board member that led to the opportunity to join the Illinois Association of School Boards in 1994. I had been part of a board that worked well together, so I knew what was meant by a “good board.” I also knew the value of a good board/superintendent working relationship. Only after I got to IASB did I learn about some “boards that behave badly” and how hard the Association works with such boards to improve those situations.

One of the highlights of my new job was being included in the staff retreat to Nebo, Illinois, at a small rural lodge where the work on our governance philosophy started. That was in July 1997 — exactly 20 years ago! What eventually became the “Foundational Principles of Effective Governance,” continues to be the bedrock of IASB instruction to school boards, to help them define who they are, what they do, how and why they do it.

In culling my files before retiring, I found a supporting document that preceded the Nebo meeting. “Governance Role of the Local School Board” summarized the essentials of vision, advocacy, structure, and accountability. My note next to advocacy was “moral trustees.” Maybe that is why being director for advocacy for the Association and its members has meant so much to me.

Working in this role has showed me that although Illinois emphasizes “local control,” we still need to consider the entire state when we talk about education and educational opportunities. Certain legislation, although beneficial in some areas, may be detrimental in other areas of the state, which is why we need to look at what works for all. Local voices need to be heard. But know that your voice and your ability to forge a relationship with legislators, their assistants, and other policy makers are crucial factors in impacting public education policy.

Over the past 23 years, I have been an active participant in and liaison to many statewide education committees, commissions, and task forces. One of the highlights included involvement with the start-up of the Better Funding for Better Schools (BFBS) coalition in 1999. This coalition was formed by school board member Sharon Voliva, legislators including State Representative Will Davis, and businessman Bill Doctor. It also included voices from a variety of smaller organizations as well as statewide organizations like IASB — all seeking better school funding. We worked hard, first organizing and then lobbying locally and in Springfield for more equitable funding. Despite the enormous effort and progress, the coalition disbanded and there is still no school funding reform. It is not surprising; however, that Rep. Davis is still involved in the effort and is a sponsor of current funding reform legislation.

BFBS was not the only effort; in fact, around this same time, another statutory group was established under the responsibility of ISBE: the Education Funding Advisory Board (EFAB). This board consisted of five members along with about 20 people from various agencies and educational organizations as support. They were tasked with researching and proposing what the equitable/adequate per pupil funding amount should be in Illinois and make recommendations to the General Assembly concerning the General State Aid grant program.

Another of my ongoing responsibilities has been attending the Illinois State Board of Education monthly board meetings, budget hearings, and other ISBE-related events. When I first started attending, the meetings would often be held in Chicago or other areas of the state. The supporting staff for the agency would attend and the meetings were a full two-day event. Issues would be discussed one day in detail prior to possible votes the next day. Staff would make presentations and be part of the discussions. Outside experts would be brought in to help with understanding the topic. Today, state board meetings are barely more than two hours in length. There is rarely any detailed discussion or questioning about most agenda items. There is limited staff presentation and interaction, and rarely outside experts.

Probably one of my favorite groups to work with over the years has been the Future Farmers of America (FFA). I met these students when they would testify at ISBE budget hearings or ISBE board meetings, always wearing their crisp blue blazers, and always well-spoken and organized. As I got to know some of their student officers and their sponsors, I found out the rigor of their programs and the power behind their leadership skills. It is a remarkable program.

Another group I’ve enjoyed working with is the Civic Mission Coalition, dedicated to promoting civics in education. It started about 15 years ago with the support of both the McCormick Foundation and the Constitutional Rights Foundation and has evolved into a true cross-sectional coalition. One of its primary accomplishments has been the promotion of and support for schools to become Illinois Democracy Schools. Currently there are about 60 high schools with this distinct designation. Schools apply for this honor and must work through a rigorous program around civics and their schools to achieve this honor. It was through my involvement with this coalition that I was asked to travel to Estonia with the CIVITAS project to represent American school boards as that country shared their educational system with us.

Academic excellence and rigor was also the focus of the Lincoln Foundation for Education Excellence. I represented IASB with the Foundation, a coalition of education groups and businesses that worked to encourage schools and districts in Illinois to get involved with the national Baldrige Framework for Excellence program. Partly because of its rigor and demand of time and partly because of dwindling funds available to pursue this process, the Lincoln Foundation for Education Excellence disbanded. Some of their work was eventually replaced by the Illinois Education Roundtable, which included many of the same organizations that were involved with the Lincoln Foundation.

Internally, I have been active in the IASB committee that researched and developed our community engagement process. I think that for public education to survive, it needs to focus on just this kind of community involvement. Over the years, I have heard and met with educational visionaries and leaders both locally and internationally. I have learned the importance of school board voice beyond the boardroom. This is — or should be — the work of all school boards and school board members: to make your voice known, to make your role known.

After all these years, I am still baffled by the lack of knowledge that the general public has about what school boards do and why they are vital. There are whispers of the demise of public education as we know it; that includes a locally elected school board. School board members are the poster image of grassroots activity. Among their many roles, school board members are the public relations department for their district. Not only do they need to know their legislators on a personal level (and they need to know you and your district), they need to advertise their district with their constituents, their county, and their state.

To me, the most important part of advocacy is developing relationships with people. It is only within those relationships that sharing information, building trust, and taking responsibility for a board member’s role occurs. Sitting at a board table once or twice a month is not enough: grassroots advocacy is a full-time, active job.

So, what exactly is “advocacy?”

By definition, it is “the act of pleading for, supporting, or recommending; active espousal.”

One of the goals throughout my IASB career has been to remind people that school boards are a vital part of the public school education system. People know teachers, superintendents, principals, students, and even buildings. But many don’t know the role of school boards or know their school board members. That is the ongoing job of all school board members.

School board activities have changed since I was a board member in the 1980s. People then had more time to devote to meetings and activities; technology was in its infancy. Add to that the state had more money and schools had more money. It was a more prosperous time.

Having said that, some things never change: sharing what a local school board does, what you are responsible for, and how you do your work is crucial as public education moves through and around this age of privatization and vouchers. Know you can impact this future by meeting your legislators, your state board members, your local elected officials, and your community. Invite them to visit your schools, to attend a school board meeting, and visit them in in their space. Start with a “hello,” a handshake, and a smile. (And if needed, a plate of homemade cookies can help!)

Remember, it takes relationships, relationships, relationships to build effective and successful advocacy.