New group will try to connect school board members pushing for ‘dramatic change’ in these 10 cities

School board members are elected to make the most local decisions about school policy. But a new group is trying to get them to join forces to form a network of school board members in at least 10 cities.

School Board Partners says it wants to create a “national community” of board members and will offer coaching and consulting services. Emails obtained by Chalkbeat indicate the group is targeting board members in Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Memphis, New Orleans, Oakland, and Stockton.

The group spun out of Education Cities, an organization that advocated for the “portfolio model,” a strategy focused on expanding charter schools as well as giving district schools more autonomy. Denver, Indianapolis, and New Orleans have enacted some version of that model, and Education Cities also counted member groups in most of the cities on School Board Partners’ list. And School Board Partners’ website says its community will be “aligned to a common theory of change” — signs that this is a new strategy for portfolio advocates.

But Carrie McPherson Douglass, who previously worked at Education Cities and founded the new group, says it won’t push specific policies.

“One of our core beliefs is the need for local autonomy,” she told Chalkbeat. The group is open to board members from any city who will prioritize equity and want to see “dramatic change,” she said — and that’s not simply code for the portfolio model.

“I am very hopeful that there are other ideas out there,” Douglass said.

School Board Partners’ website offers limited information, but an August email sent to recruit potential members offers more details. Douglass wrote the group has “secured our first large multi-year grant” and plans to offer “pro-bono consulting services to help school board members research, plan and execute thoughtful change initiatives.” (The email also lists San Antonio as a target city, but Douglass says it has since been removed because Texas already has a support system for school boards that want to adopt the portfolio model.)

Douglass, an elected school board member in Bend, Oregon, said the group grew out of her experience. “I thought I was going in pretty prepared, pretty knowledgeable,” she said. I “really just found it to be an incredibly unique and difficult challenge.”

The group doesn’t have a list of members and is still raising money, Douglass said. The email said the group would hold its first national convening in October, but Douglass said that’s been pushed to February.

School Board Partners was announced in July, as some of Education Cities’ staff shifted to and helped start The City Fund, a well-financed new group that hopes to bring the portfolio model to cities across the country.

Douglass says her group’s funding so far has come from money raised by Education Cities, which had been funded by the Arnold, Dell, Gates, Kauffman, and Walton Family foundations, among others. (Chalkbeat is also funded by Gates and Walton.)

The emails obtained by Chalkbeat came through a public records request to the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Douglass emailed Myrna Castrejón — the head of Great Public Schools Now, a Los Angeles-focused group that was part of the Education Cities network — suggesting that Castrejón offer the opportunity to join School Board Partners to Los Angeles board members. Douglass suggested Mónica García and Nick Melvoin, who were elected to the board with the financial backing of charter school advocates.

Castrejón forwarded the note to Melvoin and García, both of whom wrote back that were interested.

But Melvoin and García each told Chalkbeat they hadn’t joined the group and haven’t heard much about it since the initial email connection.

Castrejón, who was recently named the head of the California Charter Schools Association, said in a statement that her group made the introductions because it supports organizations like School Board Partners that promote collaboration.

The lengthy digest of emails obtained by Chalkbeat shows Castrejón and her staff were frequently in communication with García and Melvoin’s offices. For instance, Castrejón included both in a meeting with parents alongside superintendent Austin Beutner, and she coordinated with Melvoin’s staff to fund a collaboration-focused retreat for leaders of some district and charter schools located in the same buildings. García shared responses to media requests about Great Public Schools Now’s launch with Castrejón.

The records indicate little email communication between Castrejón and L.A.’s other four current board members.

Read the full set of emails below.