James Russell retired in December from his position as IASB’s associate executive director for communications and production services.

Before turning off the lights and leaving the corner office at IASB’s Springfield office for the final time, I was asked to write a “magnum opus” for The Journal. Now that’s pressure!

This certainly won’t qualify, but I promised to review my 17-plus years of working for the Illinois Association of School Boards. My tenure pales in comparison to those who have spent most of or their entire careers at IASB, but it’s been a great second act for this writer/editor/publisher.

Like so many new or would-be school board members, I joined the Association with a pre-conceived notion of what to expect. I would be using my 26 years of journalism experience to fill a new position – director of publications. Like those new members; however, the reality of what school board governance is — and isn’t — took time to learn. Fortunately, I was surrounded by colleagues with an incredible collective wisdom and institutional knowledge. As I gained my footing and eventually contributed to their efforts, I began to understand the essence of school board service. The role of the Association is to enable its members to do the same.

The specific tasks in the communications and production services departments are to support the work of other staff; create and shape messages; design and deliver reports and documents via print, online, and social media; and monitor the public perception of school boards at work. Accustomed to working on daily news deadlines, I had to adjust to Association work that must be done on daily, weekly, monthly, annual, and even bi-annual deadlines or cycles.

While much of what the Association does is fairly predictable and recurring, there is much leeway for how the work gets done. Even more satisfying is having the responsibility and earning the authority for trying new things, in new ways to serve our members.

Do all of these ideas work? Of course not. I used to try to rationalize a failed venture by telling my former IASB boss and mentor, Jerry Glaub, that it probably was “a good idea that didn’t work.” Jerry would have none of that. “No, that just means it wasn’t a good idea,” he insisted. End of story; lesson learned.

Fortunately, Jerry — who at one time was responsible for all IASB member services — continued to encourage me as my role here expanded. I was grateful to learn from him and eventually assume some of those responsibilities: Service Associates, educational administration, book editing, and author relations, to name a few. Along the way, we refined some processes and took on new projects as member needs changed.

We redesigned The Journal and the IASB website, developed new school board election materials, and added social media and videos to our toolkit. We replaced a printed Newsbulletin with an online version, then converted it to a blog format. We initiated or contributed to reports and campaigns, such as “Recruiting School Board Members,” “School Board Members’ Day,” the “Connecting with the Community” report on community engagement, “Stand Up 4 Public Schools,” and “Weighing Healthy Options,” a year-long series on childhood obesity and nutrition published in this magazine.

The Joint Annual Conference, which involves all staff in year ‘round preparations, was another opportunity to serve our members in new ways. We added Friday and Saturday orientation panels; developed an online schedule planner and panel handouts downloads; and expanded photo, video, and social media coverage of the event. Our staff eventually took over the Conference hospitality room (remember when cookies and coffee were available in the Comiskey Room?) and transformed it to the IASB Homeroom, for members to explore Association offerings.

That’s in addition to publishing the Conference Preview and Program, operating the Conference Bookstore, hosting Panel Sessions, and reporting on the entire event.

One Conference activity really stands out for me. In 2003, with support from the Illinois Council of Professors of Educational Administration, we developed an internship program. Over the past 15 years, one-third of the 82 interns chosen for this program have been hired as school superintendents in Illinois. It’s our hope that many return to Conference with their local board members and staff.

Without question, the largest and most ambitious project was the IASB Centennial, “1913-2013: Lighting the Way for 100 Years.” I don’t know which was more challenging: the year it took to research the Association’s history, or the year we spent celebrating it. Both were gratifying, staking a lasting milestone for the organization to measure its progress, while creating numerous opportunities for local districts to participate in and share their own histories.

The rich history of this Association is really a reflection of the history of school boards and public education in Illinois. Our story is entirely dependent on the thousands of men and women who run for and serve on local school boards. Researching that history introduced me, and many others, to a legacy of leadership that continues today.

I’ve been fortunate to meet, know, or work with some of those leaders. From the earlier IASB presidents – George Wirth and Ed Epstein – to the latest – Phil Pritzker and Joanne Osmond, and many others who served in between. I’m also proud to have known or worked with four of the Association’s six full-time executive directors, including Roger Eddy, Michael D. Johnson, Wayne Sampson, and Hal Seamon. They are the reason this Association has earned a reputation that so many other state associations desire and attempt to model.

Our success also depends on maintaining relationships with dozens of other regional, state, and national education organizations. I can’t name them all, but a few come to mind that IASB staff members belong to and participate in, including the National School Public Relations Association and its Illinois chapter, the Council of School Board Association Communicators, Association for Women in Communications Springfield chapter, Illinois Press Association, Illinois Channel, NPR and WUIS-FM, the American Library Association and its Illinois affiliate, the American Booksellers Association, and the Illinois Heartland Library System.  

Of course, our partnerships with IASA, IPA, and Illinois ASBO are equally valuable. It’s a joy to have so many colleagues to collaborate with.

Earlier, I mentioned the collective wisdom and institutional knowledge that’s represented by IASB staff. I’ve learned so much from co-workers, current and past, that I could never thank or repay them sufficiently. I have a tender spot in my heart for those who have passed, and for those whose tenure was cut short by health or personal circumstance.

I won’t name the individuals who currently work in communications and production services, but I do hope you look them up. Some are known to members; others work behind the scenes. Their energy, expertise, and passion make my job look easy. And by the time this issue, Vol. 86, No. 1, rolls out, a new associate executive director will be leading the charge. Kara Kienzler, who has led our design, typesetting, and printing operations since November 2013, will make the job look even easier. Good luck to her and a great staff.

This has been a great second act for me personally. Thanks for reading and especially thank you for serving.