In Conversation With … features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate
Lisa Baird, a member of the Henderson County School Board for nine years and board chairwoman for the past three, has become known for her advocacy efforts on behalf of local schools. Baird owns a small business in Henderson, and her children attended Henderson County Schools.
Q: In terms of advocacy for local schools, how do you decide where to focus your efforts?
A. It always goes back to the issues that are going to affect our community most. Those of us on the school board have other jobs, so we have to pick and choose which issues to tackle because you can’t go after all of them.
Q. You have said that remembering whom you represent also helps establish your priorities.
A. Yes. We recently had a tax vote and increased our school tax so a lot of adults have been griping and having a fit. I’ve said, “I know you elected me and I know you think I work for you, but I work for the children of Henderson County. I am an advocate for the kids.”
Q. What is an example of an issue affecting kids that you are currently working on?
A. Funding for family resource centers, which the governor is trying to cut. I served on a family resource center advisory council, so it is close to home for me. As a school board member, I have gotten the chance to see how much impact family resource centers can have with few resources. They can take a dollar and turn it into 10. Those people work for our most underprivileged children and families, so helping family resource centers keep their funding is going to help kids locally. Another issue that is near and dear is career and technical education.
Q. You’ve said that interest is rooted in your son’s experience. He tried college, but chose to go through vocational school and become a diesel mechanic because in high school, he had most loved his CTE classes.
A. Yes, and when he finished his training, he had three job offers. He makes good money, has gotten to travel and owns his own home. It made me realize we have plenty of people pushing for improvements on the college side but that kids who choose the career side need all the help they can get.
Q. Not all of the issues you deal with affect only Henderson schools.
A. That is true. There are those that are going to affect the whole state, like charter schools. It may be awhile before charter schools come to Henderson, so people will ask, “Why are you fighting charter schools? They aren’t affecting Henderson schools.” My answer is “yet.”
Q. Does your role make your voice more powerful?
A. As board chairman, does your voice have more impact? Maybe. But each of us on the board has our own niche or project that we want to work on. When I first became a board member, I pushed for technology. Another board member has advocated for anti-bullying. Another, who is a former teacher, has a lot of things she works on because after being in the classroom, she knows what works. Keeping kids safe is one of her big things.
Q. How do you typically reach out to legislators?
A. My theory is that you have to be the squeaky wheel and keep going back to talk to them about issues. I don’t usually use the phone, because it is hard to reach them when the legislature is in session. Most of it is one-to-one conversations – remember, I also run a small business and so I personally know legislators in my town. Also, I reach out by email because it allows you to include more detail and gives them the option of printing all the emails they get about those issues and reviewing all of the responses.
Q. Is advocacy one of the official responsibilities of Kentucky school board members?
A. The responsibilities are actually pretty limited. As a board member, you are supposed to set policy and set taxes and hire the school superintendent. That is all the job description your state gives you as a board member. But if you are going to be a good school board member, you have got to be involved in your community and you have got to figure out ‘what is the rest of your job?’ Keeping kids safe and making sure they graduate with a good education – those are my responsibilities.
Q. Citizens, of course, can discuss issues with local and state leaders. Why is hearing from a school board member different?
A. I don’t think we, as school board members, are more powerful, but I do think we are often more educated on the issues and can talk to them in more depth. It’s like if I, as a citizen, went up to our state senator, Dorsey Ridley, and said, “I don’t like potholes and I don’t like traffic.” That is the depth of my knowledge about transportation. It would be a short conversation. But if the county’s transportation director talked to Dorsey, there would be much more to talk about. If a parent ran into the senator, they could tell him that they don’t like this or that about the schools. But if I run into him, I can talk about particular issues and specific things that are important. I can say, “Did you know it is going to cost us $250,000 if you do this and this?” It is not that I have more power; I am just more educated about the specifics of an issue than John Q. Public.
Q. You’ve pointed out that sometimes when changes like charter schools are inevitable, an advocate must take a different approach and suggest ways to tweak legislation to make it more acceptable to local schools.
A. Yes, in the case of charter schools I could say to Sen. Ridley, “I don’t like charter schools, but if we have to have them, can we get rid of this piece or that piece in the legislation.”
Q. You have been proactive in helping new lawmakers become informed about local school issues.
A. When Robby Mills became our state representative, I contacted him and said, “I know you know a lot about business and the city, but you don’t know about education, so you need to get educated.” He agreed, so I set up a meeting for him with our superintendent and his administrative staff. I knew they could tell him more about what the schools need than I could. And now, when he needs to reach out to the schools on various issues, he knows who he should contact because he has met them.
Q. Part of being a good advocate is doing your research and having a good network.
A. Yes, I have benefited from going to the National School Boards Association conference and talking to others from around the country who have found solutions to problems that we are dealing with.
Q. You have effectively used social media to help raise awareness of
issues and needs. Can you talk about how you’ve done that?
A. My Lisa Baird school board Facebook page is set up with a disclaimer that says any opinions there are mine and do not reflect those of the entire board. I usually just repost news that our schools have posted on social media, and the Facebook page is also a platform where I can discuss issues with followers. Because I set the page up as a business page in Facebook, if I want to make sure a post gets broader distribution to Facebook users, I can pay $7 to $10 to boost a post. I can set it so that the post appears on the Facebook stream of people within a certain mile radius, who are in certain age range, etc.
Q. Describe a Facebook post that you have boosted.
A. I shared a school system post about the annual Ready Fest, which helps get school supplies to kids for the start of school. I boosted it so that everyone in the area could see it on Facebook.
Q. You also use traditional media to educate and advocate for Henderson County Schools. The local newspaper recently published an op-ed piece that you wrote about the increase in the school tax rate. What other forms of media do you use?
A. The local radio station will sometimes ask one of us on the board to speak about a local school issue. There is a show that airs early on Tuesday mornings called Speak Up. If there was a local issue I felt we needed to discuss on that forum, I could call the station manager and ask if I or another board member could come in and talk about it.
Q. If a new school board member asked for advice regarding being a strong advocate for local schools, what would you tell them?
A. I would tell them that you not only want to be transparent but you need to be available. My cell phone number is on the Henderson County Public Schools website. Don’t be afraid of your public. They are going to bring up things you are not even aware of. Be open and be prepared.