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With Bryant at Helm, NSBA Eyes New Role

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With their decision to hire Anne L. Bryant, the leaders of the National School Boards Association have clearly signaled a new era for the 56-year-old organization.

Ms. Bryant has made a name for herself at the American Association of University Women, which she built into a forceful champion of gender equity and better education for girls. Now, the NSBA's directors want Ms. Bryant, who will become the association's executive director next month, to make it a more influential player in education.

"We have been seen as a reactive group, where we wait until somebody attacks before defending ourselves," said Sammy J. Quintana, the president of the NSBA's board of directors. "We're the ones who run the schools, but all too often we get shut out of meetings where we should be an important voice."

In December, the board adopted a strategic plan and a blueprint for strengthening local school boards. With this activist agenda, the directors then sought candidates to replace Thomas A. Shannon, who is retiring this summer after running the Alexandria, Va.-based association for nearly 20 years.

Mr. Shannon is credited with bringing stability to the federation of 54 state and territorial school boards' associations. About 2,000 individual school boards, out of about 15,000 nationwide, also are members.

But the association frequently has been criticized--both from within and without--for taking what Louis Grumet, the executive director of its New York state affiliate, called "weak, nambypamby stands that won't offend anybody."

Ms. Bryant is "dynamic, visionary, and realistic," Mr. Grumet said. "I think all three are sadly needed and sorely needed by the NSBA."

'Decide and Lead'

Local school boards have faced increasing challenges in the past 15 years as states have assumed more control over education policy. Mayors also have sought to usurp their authority, and some experts have suggested that boards may be obsolete. (See Education Week, April 29, 1992.)

In seeking strong new leadership, members of the NSBA's board of directors were attracted by the 46-year-old Ms. Bryant's visibility in Washington and in the national media. They also praise her track record in turning around the aauw and her links to other education organizations.

"We felt that she was an advocate and had a strong passion for educating children," said Roberta Doering, the immediate past president of the school boards' association.

When Ms. Bryant became the executive director of the AAUW 10 years ago, the Washington-based organization of college graduates was rapidly losing members and had blurred its focus with a laundry list of 75 legislative priorities.

With her background as a consultant to trade associations, Ms. Bryant charted a clear path: pressing for education and equity for women. In 1991, the association launched its Initiative for Educational Equity, a broad campaign that has raised its profile and boosted membership from about 110,000 to 152,000.

Under the initiative, the association and its educational foundation have commissioned research, sponsored fellowships for teachers, attracted foundation grants, and lobbied for gender-equity provisions in federal legislation.

The AAUW's advocacy in behalf of schoolgirls has not been without controversy. Critics have questioned the research findings concluding that girls are discriminated against in schools. (See Education Week, Sept. 28, 1994.)

Ms. Bryant said in a recent interview that she intends to begin the same soul-searching process at the NSBA that helped the American Association of University Women reinvigorate itself.

"I have been able to decide on the issues that are important to the organization and then lead on them," she said of her tenure at the AAUW. "When you take on a position, not everyone is going to love you."

The NSBA's directors and state organizations are ready to assume a leadership role, she said, but they must work closely with other organizations, including civic and community groups.

"Having the NSBA become a leader and a player does not mean it's a solo act," Ms. Bryant stressed. "This needs to be a very much inclusive and collegial leadership role."

One switch will be immediately apparent. Ms. Bryant will serve as the spokeswoman for the NSBA, a role previously filled by the group's elected presidents, who serve one-year terms.

"When you think of education, you tend to think of [Albert] Shanker or Keith Geiger, because they stay around a long time," said G. Holmes Braddock, a Dade County, Fla., school board member and a director of the NSBA, referring to the presidents of the national teachers' unions.

"The more she begins to speak for us," he said of Ms. Bryant, "the more her name will surface as well."

Recognizing Problems

Though Ms. Bryant is still studying the school boards' association--meeting with its 140-odd staff members and the state executive directors--she offered some clues about where it might head under her leadership.

"The concept of school boards is so American it should not even be questioned," she said. "But their effectiveness needs to be improved. In the past, we tended to say, 'The news media are doing a good job of bashing school boards, so we will just protect them.' I think we've got to recognize a problem and call it that."

In addition to publicizing examples of well-functioning school boards, Ms. Bryant said, she would like to see the NSBA provide technical assistance to troubled boards. The association might assemble a resource team of volunteers drawn from local school boards who would consult with floundering boards in exchange for their travel expenses.

"I've tested this with a couple people who said that's just the kind of thing the national needs to do," she said.

She also believes that school governance must become more reflective of American demographics. "If you look across the nation, the percentage of African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American individuals who are members of local school boards is not reflective of their percentage of the population."

The association likely will continue to promote uses for technology in education--an area of personal interest to Ms. Bryant. Though the NSBA's annual technology conference is considered tops in the field, she said, its programs could be beefed up to help school boards wrestle with the equity and educational issues that technology poses.

Ms. Bryant also may expand the association's national-affiliate program, which allows individual school boards to join. That, she said, would enhance the association's opportunities to speak and work directly with school boards.

'Unwieldy' Structure

The NSBA, which has an annual budget of $18 million, holds conferences and workshops, lobbies on Capitol Hill, tracks legislation affecting school boards, publishes The American School Board Journal magazine, and produces a wide range of self-help publications for school boards.

In April, the association decided to cease publishing The Executive Educator, which wasn't making money. One employee was laid off.

Some of the other NSBA services, Ms. Bryant said, may duplicate things being done by state associations.

"The challenge I will have with the board and the state executives is to look more specifically at what strategy will enable us to be a leader," she said. "That may or may not happen by doing the great, broad array of activities we do."

The association is creating a foundation that Ms. Bryant hopes to use to conduct research on issues facing school boards.

But in fashioning a forward-looking agenda for the NSBA, she faces formidable challenges.

The organization's structure and conservative tradition have made it difficult for its leaders to take bold stances, said Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, who expects to work closely with Ms. Bryant.

To take a position nationally, he pointed out, the NSBA has needed approval from each state affiliate.

"That's a very unwieldy way to do business in Washington," Mr. Houston said. "It's an interesting problem for her, and not one I necessarily envy. But she's a real possibility person and very much a go-getter."

Mr. Houston said the selection of Ms. Bryant over the executive directors of several state school boards' associations for the job was "not a safe choice for them. My estimation of their board is very high as a result of that."

Jacqueline P. Danzberger, an authority on school boards at the Institute for Educational Leadership, a not-for-profit organization in Washington that develops and supports school leaders, also applauded the selection.

"This could provide an opportunity for NSBA to think about school boards and local governance," Ms. Danzberger said. "It has been almost a century since there really were structural reforms of governance, and we know that there are many situations where it is dysfunctional. It would be extremely effective if this leadership came from NSBA."

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