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May/June 2012

Board member advocacycan make a big difference
by Ben Schwarm

Ben Schwarm, IASB associate executive director for governmental relations, answers the question for this issue.

Question: Why is it important for me as a school board member to pay attention to legislation and contact my legislator?

Answer : In the current two-year legislative cycle, more than 10,000 bills were introduced in the Illinois legislature. Typically, anywhere from one quarter to a third of all legislation will either directly or indirectly affect a local school district. Of course, not all of these bills pass and become law, but in the first year of the current General Assembly, 680 bills have been enacted into law. Again, a significant percentage of these new laws will require changes to how a local school district operates.

Some changes will be relatively minor, requiring a school board to adopt a policy on student athlete concussions or to post personnel salary information on the district’s website. Other requirements may be more substantial, such as overhauling the system for dismissing and RIFing teachers or requiring school board members to receive four hours of training in education labor law and financial oversight.

For better or for worse, the state legislature has become much more involved in the day-to-day activities of the local school district, and school board members should become more aware of the process.

Advocacy by IASB can make a difference at the Capitol. With 10,000 bills being considered in the legislature, lawmakers cannot and do not know the effects of all of the proposals. Simply sharing with legislators what the result would be for your school district if a bill would be enacted can change the vote of a senator or representative. It’s not arm-twisting, it is merely providing honest information on the repercussions of a legislative proposal. No one is more qualified to reach out to that local legislator than a school board member who: 1) knows intimately how a proposal would affect the school district, and 2) has been elected by the same voters as has the legislator.

IASB has legislative specialists who are in the Capitol on every session day. These professionals have analyzed the legislation, have taken a position on the bills as directed by Association members through the resolutions and delegate assembly process, and have relayed those positions to the lawmakers — again by providing honest information and data on the issue. The IASB legislative team is respected and trusted in the Capitol, and legislators know that they are receiving reliable information. But when legislators receive information from their local area, from their school districts, from their peers and constituents, that message is reinforced exponentially!

Last year when the governor proposed the forced consolidation of school districts based on arbitrary enrollment and population numbers, IASB came out in strong opposition. But it was not IASB staff lobbyists who killed the proposal. It was the hundreds of phone calls legislators received from volunteer, elected school board members.

Involvement by school board members in the legislative process can, and does, make a difference. IASB legislative staff, with the help of grassroots support from locally elected school board members, derail or amend dozens of bills each year that could have had a detrimental effect on local school districts.

All of the information necessary to keep abreast of the current goings-on at the Capitol can be found in the Alliance Legislative Report. The Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance is the organized legislative efforts of the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB), the Illinois Association of School Administrators (IASA), the Illinois Principals’ Association (IPA) and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials (Illinois ASBO). IASB staff writes the legislative report that then is distributed to school board members, superintendents, business officials and principals.

The report is sent out weekly, via e-mail, and includes the latest news from the Capitol regarding school-related legislation. By reading the legislative report, school board members will have the information necessary to determine when a call to a legislator might be needed. Anyone can receive the report simply by sending an e-mail to and requesting it.

 Here are a few tips in reaching out to your local legislators:

• If you have not yet met your state representative or senator, make a call to the district office, introduce yourself as a school board member and offer to be a resource on school-related legislation.

• When the legislators are home in the district office, set up a meeting with a couple of school board members, the superintendent and a principal to discuss education matters.

• Since the legislator is not always available in the district, especially during the legislative session, get acquainted with the administrative assistant or legislative aide in the district office. These key staff people are valuable resources.

• Visit, call, e-mail or write a letter to legislators on key legislation relating to your school district. Get to the point, use local data and stay out of “attack mode.”

• Feel free to contact IASB legislative team members if you have a question, comment or wish to relay feedback from your legislators

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