Published Online: March 12, 1997

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Accord Reached in Power Struggle Between Va. Board, Local Units

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In what appears to be the first case of its kind in the nation, an attempt by the Virginia state board of education to limit the authority of local school boards has ended with a settlement between the state board and the Virginia School Boards Association.

The dispute began last November when the state board adopted a resolution allowing individual local board members to select training sessions for themselves without first getting the approval of their colleagues.

What also concerned VSBA officials was a provision that granted the state board the power to resolve disputes about the validity of the individual members' chosen training.

Since 1988, state law requires local school board members to take annual training on curriculum and other education matters.

In response to the state board's action, the VSBA filed a lawsuit in circuit court in Richmond in December, charging that the resolution violated state law by depriving local school boards of their authority to make decisions as a whole.

The settlement, reached late last month, calls for the state board to eliminate the two contested sections of the resolution.

Had the courts ultimately ruled to uphold the resolution, it may have set a precedent for the state to wrest control from local boards, said Frank E. Barham, the executive director of the school boards' association.

"This is not about training," Mr. Barham contended. "It's about the authority of an individual versus the authority of the board. If the minority board member was able to appeal the majority decision in this instance, could they do that in other cases?"

Some observers have speculated that by adopting the resolution, state board members were trying to advance a more conservative agenda.

Politics or Options?

Nationally, Virginia represents the first instance of a state board passing such a resolution, according to August Steinhilber, the general counsel of the National School Boards Association.

"Politics are behind this whole thing," Mr. Steinhilber asserted. "It would have been a bad precedent for an individual board member to, in effect, have control over a portion of the budget," he said.

But Michelle Easton, the president of the Virginia state board, maintained that the body adopted the resolution as a way to diversify the options school board members have for their training. Currently, the overwhelming majority of school board members receive their annual training through course offerings at the VSBA's own academy.

Ms. Easton said that state board members saw the need to make the changes after a poll of association members last summer revealed that some were dissatisfied with the VSBA training. Some cited the cost and scope of conferences as well as what they called the liberal focus of the association in general.

As a part of the settlement, the VSBA has agreed to inform its members that its courses are not the only way by which they can fulfill the state training requirement.

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