Before there was a New Jersey School Boards Association – 101 years ago – there were county school boards associations in the state. Then, as now, they served as a way for local board members to band together and share information, as well as jointly advocate for public schools.

When Dr. Lawrence Feinsod began his tenure as NJSBA’s executive director in October 2012, one of his top priorities involved strengthening the health of the county school boards associations. He understood the benefit of board members networking with members from neighboring districts, and how board of education members value top-notch training delivered in a geographic location close to home.

Soon after joining the association, he made a tour of all 21 county associations, and told them, “the health of NJSBA is dependent on the health of the county associations.”

One step in strengthening the county groups was the introduction of dinners at the county meetings, which allow tired and busy board members a chance to eat something after a long day at work before concentrating on professional development. County associations hold meetings in restaurants and in county vocational schools at no cost to local school districts, thanks to the financial support of corporate partnerships.

The attendance at county meetings has grown 52 percent in the last two years.

But the dinners were only the first step in achieving the vision for a stronger association.

Sharing a meal has provided the membership time to decompress and network with their fellow local board members. These conversations have brought many ideas to the forefront as topics for the county executive committee members. In each county, officers have been working to improve topics, format, and engagement at each one of their five county meetings.

The last three years of county association meetings have brought a variety of unique professional development opportunities to the local level. For example, Bergen County co-sponsored a meeting with the Bergen County Association of School Administrators to discuss mental health concerns of students. Burlington County brought board members and local municipal officials together for a conversation on how to work together and share services, to save money for their tax payers. Sussex County sponsored a wide-ranging conversation about STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics), which included NJSBA and local school district staff discussing how best to implement a STEAM program.

How Do the County Associations Work? To quote NJSBA’s bylaws, the county associations exist to “…work for the betterment of educational affairs in such county, and in cooperation with the Association, to work for betterment of educational affairs of the state.” How they do this varies.

Each county executive committee works in collaboration with the NJSBA county activities coordinators to provide a venue for the membership to exchange ideas, concerns, questions, and comments on public education in their district, county, and New Jersey.

As meeting participation has increased, the conversations have changed and, in some cases, county groups have taken action on issues.

This year, four counties traveled into new territory, passing resolutions that express the beliefs of the county organization as a group on particular issues. Morris County was the first; in April 2014 the Morris County School Boards Association passed a resolution urging the repeal of superintendent salary caps. The Morris executive committee surveyed districts, then wrote a resolution, which was sent out to the boards in the county, which then voted to approve the resolution at a county meeting.

The resolution was discussed at the next county meeting, and was ultimately passed. Bergen, Gloucester, and Camden have since followed suit with the passage of county school board-supported resolutions. These counties have stood as a united force and told their elected officials that superintendent caps are harmful or that pension and benefit reform is important. The meetings where these topics were discussed not only allowed the elected officials to know how the membership felt about a particular topic; it also brought that conversation to the state association.

This subtle moment has created momentum, which will only continue to grow. The county associations throughout the state are working to ensure bottom-up communication from local boards to NJSBA headquarters in Trenton.

Soon board members throughout the state will receive their county association meeting schedule for 2015-2016. We urge you to take a moment to add those dates to your schedule. Don’t miss an opportunity to learn more, meet and exchange information with board members from neighboring districts, and be part of the effort to advocate for schoolchildren in your county and around the state.

For more information on your county association, go to County School Board Associations.