Georgia’s school boards association breaks with national after Biden letter to investigate threats

People opposed to Fulton County Schools' mask mandate protest outside a board meeting on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC

Credit: Vanessa McCray

Credit: Vanessa McCray

People opposed to Fulton County Schools' mask mandate protest outside a board meeting on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC

The association that advocates for Georgia’s school boards has broken with its national advocacy group in part over a letter to President Joe Biden that sought protection for school officials and employees from threats made against them across the country.

The leadership of the Georgia School Boards Association voted Tuesday to separate from the National School Boards Association immediately, citing several grievances including that September letter.

The NSBA had sought federal intervention, citing vitriolic school board meetings nationwide, including one in Gwinnett County. At the time, angry crowds were visiting meetings to criticize mask mandates and critical race theory, among other things.

Several members of metro Atlanta school boards facing political strife applauded the resulting federal pledge to address the alleged threats and harassment. But Georgia has 180 school districts, and the decision to seek federal intervention didn’t sit well with many of them.

“The letter that the NSBA Leadership sent to President Biden calling for broad federal law enforcement intervention on behalf of school board members was concerning since GSBA did not ask for it, was not consulted about it, and did not agree with many of the statements” in it, says a letter from the state organization to its membership.

The NSBA posted a letter on its website in late October apologizing for the letter to Biden and for inadequate consultation with its members about it.

The Nov. 30 letter by GSBA Executive Director Valarie Wilson says the national group’s letter to Biden was just the latest of several grievances that led GSBA to begin withholding dues in June. It accuses the NSBA of “a persistent pattern of dysfunction.”

The Georgia School Boards Association, which advocates for local school boards, has withdrawn from the National School Board Association.

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The details of that alleged pattern are not in Wilson’s letter, which GSBA shared with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday.

It only says that they involved “governance” and “finance.”

Wilson elaborated about the financial concern in an interview Thursday, saying her board worried about a “huge” pension liability carried by NSBA.

Wilson also said governance issues had “plagued” NSBA since 2008 and that the letter to Biden was just the latest manifestation.

“The letter was a symptom of all of the other issues,” she said. “... Gwinnett County didn’t even know it was going to be cited in a letter.”

Gwinnett school board Chairman Everton Blair, Jr. confirmed that NSBA did not notify his board before using an Atlanta Journal-Constitution news article about a Gwinnett meeting to illustrate threats against school boards.

Blair wasn’t taking sides in the break. He said Gwinnett values its relationship with GSBA more; it helps with things like the district’s recent superintendent search.

“That said, it is very clear that school boards across the country are being targeted,” he said.

The chairs of two other large metro Atlanta districts said the break with NSBA was warranted.

“This issue has been brewing for some time,” Fulton County school board Chairwoman Julia Bernath said. “They made decisions without membership input.”

Cobb County school board Chairman Randy Scamihorn said he was “shocked” by the Biden letter.

“I think the letter went to the extreme. I do agree that there are some radical views out there by a vocal few, but I also believe that local law enforcement is capable of handling it,” he said.

NSBA did not respond to emails and voicemails seeking comment on Thursday.

The breakup means GSBA members can no longer participate in NSBA events and activities, and will have to find other avenues to lobby the federal government.

Wilson said at least 13 other state associations have withdrawn from NSBA recently, including many in the South.

“We are working together to make sure that we have a lobbying response at the federal level,” Wilson said. “We don’t have a new group as of yet but we are working together and that might be the outcome of it.”