PHOENIX — A new organization calling itself a nonpartisan school board association is headed by Republican activists, including the first vice-chair and treasurer of the Republican Party of Arizona, and the daughter of the chairwoman.
The Arizona Coalition of School Board Members was launched Oct. 12 as an alternative to the Arizona School Boards Association, with the goal of fostering "a public education environment in Arizona that prioritizes freedom in education, parental rights and educational excellence," the Arizona Capitol Times reported.
"For too long, school board members in Arizona have been left without a choice," the coalition's announcement video said. "While each school board is all but required to join a school board association, they've been forced to rely on the monopoly of one association for all of their policy guidance and training. It is time for that to change."
Currently, every school district in Arizona is a member of the Arizona School Boards Association, or ASBA, which dates back more than 70 years and provides advocacy, legal resources and training for member districts.
But some parents and conservative groups have voiced opposition to ASBA in recent years due to the organization's position on issues like Empowerment Scholarship Accounts and, more recently, "critical race theory" and the handling of COVID-19.
For instance, ASBA is currently a plaintiff in a case before the Arizona Supreme Court challenging Arizona's mask mandate ban and other Republican policies tucked into this year's budget reconciliation bills.
Coalition Board President Pam Kirby, who is also first vice chair of the AZGOP, served two terms on the Scottsdale Unified School District school board from 2010 to 2018. She said her desire for an alternative association dates back to her time on the school board.
"During the past 18 months, we have seen that need play out right in front of us as schools struggled and continue to struggle with governance," Kirby said in an email.
For $25, inaugural members — who can be school board members, parents, community members, school board candidates, teachers or administrators — can join the coalition, which says it offers training and leadership development, policy services and advocacy.
Kirby, who declined a phone interview, said in an email that the coalition board consists of "taxpayers, mothers, small business owners, teachers, current and former policy leaders," who believe students should always be at the forefront of education policy decisions.
On its website, the coalition describes itself as a "non-partisan" advocacy group, but the make-up of the organization's board suggests its mission is political.
The coalition's executive director is Katie Ward, AZ GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward's daughter and AZ GOP treasurer Sheila Muehling is also the treasurer of the new school board organization. Former Republican Rep. Jill Norgaard is on the board, as is Shelli Boggs, who ran for Maricopa County Community College District in 2018 and lost. Kristie Kennedy, a Republican precinct committeeman in Legislative District 15 is also on the team.
Matthew Nielsen, who lost the 2020 Gilbert mayoral race, is on the board, too. Nielsen founded the Education Freedom Institute, which advocates for school choice. He is also the chair of its board of directors.
The creation of a conservative alternative to ASBA is not surprising to some Republicans.
Trey Terry is a member of the Agua Fria Union High School District school board and a Republican state committeeman in Legislative District 13.
He wasn't familiar with the coalition, but he said he understood why Republicans would launch the group. He said he has sat through trainings about removing school resource officers from schools and what he said were ways to "get around critical race theory blocks."
Still, he questioned whether having an overtly partisan board would hinder it from gaining traction.
"Then again, ASBA is pretty overtly liberal," Terry said.
He said he gets frequent emails from ASBA about implementing mask mandates.
"They're pushing policy," Terry said. "I think that regardless of which side it is, when you're pushing policy from an organization that's really meant to be there as a support and training, that's where you get a little sideways. I start to tune you out, and most conservatives will."
ASBA joined other education groups in challenging, among other things, a ban on mask mandates in K-12 schools that was tucked into a budget reconciliation bill. A Maricopa County Superior Court judge found the law was illegally enacted, but the state has appealed.
Critical race theory is an academic framework that examines history, society and law through the lens of racism. The term has also been used as a catch-all for topics discussing the intricacies of racial discrimination in the United States, including the history of slavery and segregation.
When the lawsuit was filed, ASBA Executive Director Sheila Harrison-Williams sent a note to members.
"ASBA stands for local control; we do not want to mandate masks for all Arizona school districts; we simply want those districts and their locally elected school board to be able to decide what's best for their students and staff," Harrison-Williams wrote.
Many of the criticisms about ASBA and school boards "simply aren't true," said Chris Kotterman, ASBA's director of government relations.
He said some people see ASBA as some sort of oversight organization that tells local governing boards how to behave, but "that couldn't be further from the truth." ASBA gives boards compliance and regulatory advice, but they don't have to take it, he said.
"They're free to do whatever they want, whenever they want," Kotterman said.
Advocacy activities, Kotterman said, are a separate issue, determined by ASBA's membership.
"We don't just go off and make stuff up," Kotterman said. "We ground everything we do in the agenda that's adopted by our delegate assembly, which is composed of members."
The association isn't shy about being pro-public education and pro-district schools. ASBA is also opposed to public funding of private education.
"We always have been, and we regularly get called liberals because of that," Kotterman said.
The coalition said in its launch video that it would always be a pro-school choice.
Being a member of ASBA is not just agreeing or disagreeing with the association's policy decisions, Kotterman said. The association provides training and resources and offers guidance on how to stay in compliance following changes in law or new legal decisions.
"If people assume that being a member of ASBA is a political statement rather than a fundamental, pragmatic way to get access to things that are important to operate a school district, they're missing the bigger picture of what the association is all about," Kotterman said.
Kotterman said the coalition is trying to present itself as an equivalent of ASBA, but it's not.
"You can't operate the same level of compliance policies services, things like that, that we do on $25 per member," he said. "It's just a fundamentally different organization, and that's fine, but I don't think it's a replacement.
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