It was an act of the New Jersey Legislature that created the State Federation of District Boards of Education of New Jersey.

On April 8, 1914, the New Jersey Legislature approved Chapter 129, which included legislation forming an organization of boards of education, which would “investigate such subjects relating to education in its various branches as it may think proper and encourage and aid all movements for the improvement of the educational affairs of (New Jersey).”

But what we today call the New Jersey School Boards Association didn’t spring into existence fully formed in 1914. The question of forming an organization for local boards had been the focus of discussion by board members. There were already some county school boards associations in existence.

In January 1913, 30 representatives of local boards met in the State House in Trenton and made plans to form a federation. About a month later, an organization meeting was held, attracting representatives from 11 counties. Officers were elected, and rules were adopted that became the basis for bylaws. In late April 1913, a letter went out to all school boards in New Jersey urging them to appoint delegates to the new organization and describing the federation. “We need a compact, intelligent, powerful organization, composed of those who are close to the voters and taxpayers of the State; such an organization could go before the legislature, or appeal to the State Department and be sure of a respectful hearing; it could not be ignored… It will unite the School Boards of the State, so that when the occasion arises the Tax payers, by their chosen representatives, can act quickly, strike hard and strike with telling effect.”

More meetings were held in 1913, and plans were made for “a strong campaign at the 1914 session of the State Legislature,” according to a letter from an executive committee member.

When comparing concerns of the old Federation to those of the present-day NJSBA, many similarities are found. Early Federation history speaks of taxpayers’ interest in education and employee relations, and their concern for the quality of instruction. In 1915 there was a move to increase teacher probation before tenure was awarded from three to five years, and in 1916 the Federation was involved in a debate on the consolidation of schools. The first publication from the Federation was printed in 1919, titled “The Present and Future Cost of School Buildings.”

The advent of the 1920s saw the Federation taking a cautious look at school revenue sources. The railroad tax, the prime source of school revenue since 1906, was the main topic of discussion at the annual meeting. Experience with the decline of monies from this dedicated tax taught the board members not to rely on similar revenue sources. It formed the basis of NJSBA’s position that education monies must come from the state’s general fund.

In 1925, only five years after the passage of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote, Mrs. Arthur S. Chenoweth became the Federation’s president. In 1927, the Federation was asked by the commissioner of education to conduct a financial study on sources and distribution of school monies. The document is still used as a reference on early school finance and tax distribution.

The Depression Years

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit school districts hard, and the Federation responded by calling for a state income tax and state sales tax to support education. At the 1934 semi-annual meeting, Federation President Edward J. Kilpatrick called attention to the critical financial situation in schools. “Several have mentioned about schools not being open next fall. Unfortunately I confess that situation is staring us in the face now. We have closed our schools the first of June to economize; we have cut our budgets….When our budgets were high we had little money. Fifty percent of the taxes are not paid for 1933…Many municipalities are bankrupt in New Jersey. Only one thing to do today is broaden the tax base and relieve real estate. Have a sales tax and an income tax….”

That, of course, was not to happen for several years. An extensive history of NJSBA, written as a doctoral thesis by the late Dr. Erling W. Clausen, a former superintendent who later became president of the American Association of School Administrators, notes that the years from 1935 to 1941 found the primary efforts of the Federation aimed at keeping the public schools in operation during the Depression. “The main contribution of the Federation toward achieving this end came through its initiation of legislation for emergency financing for public schools.”

Through the 1930s, the Federation had no paid staff and no central org-anization. Board members, working together in committees and through the Delegate Assembly, formed positions, contacted legislators, wrote pamphlets, and generally kept up communications among the member boards.

As priorities and Federation involvement increased at state and local levels, it became apparent to some that a paid staff and permanent office were needed in Trenton and, in 1937, the issue was discussed at a Delegate Assembly. In 1939, State Senator C.E. Loizeaux, of Plainfield, brought a resolution to the Delegate Assembly to raise Federation dues to provide for a full-time executive to run its affairs in Trenton. A Federation study committee, however, recommended that no office or staff position be established.

In 1949, outgoing President Williams Spargo made an appeal to the membership. He said the organization had to be equipped to do the best job possible in maintaining quality state education, which meant there was a critical need for a change in the bylaws and new legislation to allow for increased dues. He asked the delegates to approve a resolution initiating legislation to change the existing law, which required legislative action to increase dues, and to give that authority to the Delegate Assembly. The resolution was approved 67 to 28. He also recommended changes in the process, in practice at that time, of having members of the Federation’s Executive Committee selected by the state senator in each district. Spargo’s vision became reality in 1951. President William Mitchell, in a letter sent to all boards in May 1952, outlined the change:

“One year ago a completely new staff of officers was elected and the Federation was completely reorganized, to be a self-sustaining independent organization separate from political and other ties, with only one object in view, namely, to better serve the local boards of education and public schools in general.”

During the 1950s the Federation saw many firsts: a new book, What Every School Board Member Should Know, was published; the Federation opened offices at 306 East State Street in Trenton; and a close relationship with the National School Boards Association was developed as New Jersey was represented on the group’s Executive Committee.

In 1953 the first issue of School Board Notes was published and the first regular legislative bulletins were issued.

Also in 1953, the first Workshop conference was held for school board members, with 127 people attending. Attendance and programming grew quickly; by 1961 attendance was at 1,576. In 2014, it is estimated that there will be more than 7,000 attendees and exhibitors at Workshop; and more than 250 training programs will be offered.

The decade of the 1950s closed with the establishment of an orientation program for new board members, a program which became a national model.

The Organization Adds Professional Staff

In 1957, the Federation hired Ruth Page as executive secretary of the Federation. In 1961, her title was changed to executive director. Robert Luse joined the Federation staff in 1959.

The 1960s opened with State Senator Wayne Dumont addressing the Delegate Assembly, stressing the need for a new source of tax money as relief for the property owner. De facto segregation was a concern, and boards worked with their communities to solve problems before they became a basis for legal action. Teachers were pressuring for collective bargaining and boards were urged to set personnel policies in order to avoid controversy.

As the Federation’s services grew, the idea of its own building resurfaced and, in 1963, the property at 407 West State Street was purchased as its headquarters. By 1964, staff had grown to three professionals. Federation policies were codified and a Code of Ethics for board members was drawn up by a lay committee chaired by William Rosenberg.

Thirty-six separate publications were produced. The Federation table of organization showed a Delegate Assembly, and an Executive Committee made up of three officers and 21 members, one elected or appointed from each county for a term of three years. Standing committees included a Legislative Committee, a Finance Committee, an Administrative Committee made up of the officers and the chair of the Legislative Committee, a Public Relations Committee, and a Nominating Committee.

In 1968, New Jersey’s collective bargaining law was expanded to include employers and employees in the public sector, including school districts and school employees. At NJSBA, this triggered an expansion of labor relations services for boards of education.

A Name Change

By 1970, there were 14 employees on staff. Expanded roles of the state and federal government in educational affairs caused the role of school board members to be more and more complex. The Federation, which changed its name in 1970 to the New Jersey School Boards Association, expanded its services and increased its range of duties as school boards dealt with new laws and regulations, mandatory collective bargaining, and the need for representation before the legislature and other government agencies.

Ruth Page, the Association’s first executive director, retired in 1971 and was replaced by Dr. Mark W. Hurwitz, who served until 1978.

The Growth of NJSBA

In 1972, answering the need to provide services at a local level, the Association opened three field offices in the northern, central and southern parts of the state.

By 1973, the Association’s internal organization was made up of an Executive office, a special services division and legal and communications departments. There were 16 professionals on the staff. In March of that year, the Association was reorganized into an executive office, business services, governmental relations, in-service, legal, management information and communications departments. A formal labor relations department was added in July 1973 and a field services department was added in January 1974. A restructured research arm was added in 1989.

In 1976, a practice was begun that has continued to this day. A five-year plan for the Association was painstakingly developed by a committee of board members and NJSBA staff. The result was a long-range comprehensive plan for the growth and development of the Association, its goals for the next five years and specific objectives to meet those goals: all based on the expressed needs of local boards. This process has been repeated every few years since then. The Association is currently in the midst of developing another long range strategic plan to guide it through 2017.

During the 1980s, as the Association grew, there was a need for additional office space. By 1981, it was occupying two locations on West State Street – one at 315 and one at 383. In January 1985, the Association sold those two facilities and purchased 413 West State Street, uniting the Trenton staff in one building.

In 1983, legislation was passed that allowed insurance pooling by local boards of education. The practice has ensured the availability and affordability of coverage for local school districts through joint insurance funds, and the New Jersey Schools Insurance Group.

In 1990, NJSBA went through a critical examination of its financial operations, governance structure and operational policies following the release of a sharply critical State Commission of Investigation report that examined the Association during the period of 1986 through 1988. Even before the report was issued, NJSBA began taking decisive action to ensure strong oversight of its finances. Following the report, the Association underwent critical studies by the National School Boards Association and a select panel representing the membership and the business community. Reforms addressing the NJSBA governance structure, financial oversight, and reimbursement procedures were implemented and have been further refined over the years.

In 1991, the state’s School Ethics Law was enacted, drawing on the code of ethics that had been developed by NJSBA years earlier. That same year, the Association created the Board Member Academy to provide additional training and certification to school board members.

The Century’s End Approaches

Legislative and regulatory changes during the 1990s shaped life in local school districts as well as at the Association. The 1990 Abbott v. Burke court decision, when the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the state school funding system was unconstitutional and needed to be remedied for the state’s poorest districts, kicked off a series of decisions that have affected school funding for two decades. In 1996, the State Board adopted the Core Curriculum Content Standards, which identified what the state expects students to know and be able to do when they graduate from high school.

In 1999, after enabling legislation was passed, NJSBA formed the Alliance for Competitive Energy Services (ACES), to coordinate a cooperative statewide energy purchasing program for school districts. Fifteen years later, ACES reports that since 2009, the program has saved New Jersey districts more than $150 million in energy costs.

The Association had another legislative accomplishment with the 2000 passage of the Educational Facilities and Construction and Financing Act of 2000, which decreed that the state will fund at least 40 percent of eligible school construction costs through upfront grants, if available, or yearly debt service aid.

As NJSBA moved into the 21st century, the organization examined its facilities needs and decided to close the three field offices, and consolidate, moving staff to the Trenton headquarters. This was part of a longer range plan to finance and build a new headquarters and conference center building in Hamilton Township, near the New Jersey Turnpike. The conference center would provide the facilities for member training programs. However state accountability regulations promulgated in 2008, which restricted school board member travel for training purposes, prompted the Association to take another look at its plans to build a new headquarters.

The Association’s training programs received a vote of support in 2007, when the School District Accountability Act was passed. The act mandated that school board members receive training in the first, second and third years of their first term in office, and in the first year of any re-elected or re-appointed term. The New Jersey School Boards Association was named as the designated provider of training.

In 2008, the Educational Leadership Foundation of New Jersey (ELFNJ) was established. The organization, which has 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax status, was established to secure non-tax revenue to advance effective public school governance through the training of local school board members and research. It has become an important contributor to board member training programs, and, in 2013 and 2014, sponsored three weekend New Board Member Orientation conferences, a study of special education, and a major statewide forum on school security.

In May 2009, the NJSBA Board of Directors voted to renovate the existing headquarters, which had been plagued in recent years with infrastructure problems such as extensive roof and window leaks, old plumbing and inefficient heating and cooling. The staff was relocated for about a year to rented office space on Bear Tavern Road in Ewing Township while renovations proceeded, and moved back into newly renovated quarters in October 2010.

2010 also saw a departure from tradition when NJSBA held its annual Workshop conference in Somerset, rather than in Atlantic City. At a time when most school districts were grappling with reduced state aid, the Association chose a location in central New Jersey that would be within driving distance of many board members, and would not necessitate overnight accommodations. That change lasted only one year, as a majority of board members expressed dissatisfaction with the logistical and traffic problems of spreading the training conference out over several facilities that were linked by a bus system. The following year, Workshop was moved back to the Atlantic City Convention Center, which provides the small group learning and general session facilities not available elsewhere in the state.

Looking to the Future

In the past few years, the Association has focused on training board members to govern districts so as to boost student achievement. It has also begun a focus on supporting environmentally sustainable practices in school districts. NJSBA is one of the founding organizations of Sustainable Jersey for Schools, a voluntary certification program that districts can undertake to improve health and wellness in the schools, reduce operating costs and promote sustainable practices. That program will kick off in October 2014.

Board members and staff, working together, have also undertaken the work necessary to produce three reports of current interest to education officials in the state. Prompted by the tragic 2012 school shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, the Association convened the NJSBA School Security Task Force, which will share its findings and recommendations at Workshop 2014. In spring 2014, the Special Education Task Force released its report after conducting an exhaustive study of trends in special education programming, funding and effective practices. Currently, the NJSBA Student Achievement Task Force is studying strategies and best practices that will enable school boards to close the economic achievement gap.

While this work proceeds, NJSBA’s 74 employees and 11 departments continue the daily work of providing services to school boards. The Labor Relations unit advises boards on their negotiations, analyzes salary guides, and conducts training programs in collective bargaining. The Legal department is available for board members to call with questions; it also files amicus briefs in cases of interest to boards, and conducts legal training programs for both board attorneys and members of local boards.

Professional staff in the Policy unit regularly update the Critical Policy Reference Manual, available to all school boards in the state, as well as answer a steady stream of telephone calls from members with policy concerns and questions. The policy staff also writes school district manuals on a fee-basis. The Governmental Relations Department advocates for boards and for public education at the state and federal levels, while also monitoring regulatory actions taken by the New Jersey Department of Education and the State Board of Education. The Communications Department publishes education news updates in School Board Notes and longer features and columns on relevant education topics in the bimonthly School Leader magazine. Communications also provides information and comment to various media outlets. The Field Service Department’s field service representatives provide direct services to boards, and conduct training on governance. Each FSR serves more than 70 individual districts. The Field Service department also conducts superintendent searches and does strategic plans for districts on a fee-basis. The NJSBA’s training and county activities staff members plan and provide programming for close to 200 training programs per year. These are just a few examples of the services NJSBA provides.

The pioneering local school board members who envisioned the establishment of a federation of local boards of education, and the New Jersey legislators who passed a measure enabling the organization of one, could not have foreseen what NJSBA would look like today. They probably didn’t envision a cadre of professionals available to provide training, advocacy and support via the NJSBA website, online and in-person training programs, by telephone and email and a mobile “app.” But they would surely be proud that the federation continues to fulfill its original purpose: “to encourage and aid all movements for the improvement of the educational affairs in this State.”

*Recognition is due to the late Dr. Erling Clausen, whose doctoral dissertation on the federation, submitted in 1966, served as an important resource for this article.