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In Conversation With ... Jason Howell

Jason Howell

Kentucky School Advocate
April 2021

In Conversation With features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.

Jason Howell, an attorney from Murray and former Murray Independent school board member, is serving his first term in the Kentucky Senate. A Republican, he represents Calloway, Fulton, Graves, Hickman, Lyon and Trigg counties. He talked about how school board service is impacting his work as a state legislator.

Q. You were on the Murray Independent school board for four years. What motivated you to serve?

A. 
I was approached by a member who wasn't going to run for reelection. We have three children, ages 17, 15 and 12, so education is a big part of our lives. When they were much younger, we relocated from Chattanooga to Murray in part for me to be closer to home – I’m from Fulton County – but also because we wanted a public school education rather than a private school education. With the overall dynamic in Chattanooga, we thought this was a better opportunity for our kids.

Q. You weren’t that familiar with school board service. What challenges did you discover?

A.
If KSBA wanted to do something nice for members, they would create a glossary of all the acronyms, and give it to every new member. [laughs] Getting up to speed fast enough; it’s always a challenge. It’s the steepness of the learning curve. That’s what I’m going through now in the Senate. And whether you have children in the system or not, it’s important to get this right. It is complex considering everything our school systems deal with.

Q. Were you dealing with unexpected issues?

A. 
No, I had talked through it with other members. I was fortunate to go be on a board in a good district where we didn’t have to deal with the issues some of our peers were. I also had an experienced board around me. Bob Rogers was superintendent at the time, and he’d been a superintendent for many years. I had a lot of resources to help my learning curve.

Q. Was there a connection between serving on the school board and your decision to run for state Senate?

A. 
None at all. You hear all these horror stories about being on the school board. My dad’s been on every board known to man, but not school board, and he laughed at me when I told him I was thinking about running for school board. The only correlation between the two is that not being on the school board anymore was in the “con” column in my decision to run for Senate. I enjoyed the process that much. I didn’t think I would like it as much as I did.

Q. What did you like?

A. 
The learning. And, because I had kids, I understood what was going on from the parents’ side. My mom is a retired teacher so I lived that side of it growing up. I found the policy and why we do things, especially from an educational standpoint, really interesting.

Q. What are some things you learned on the school board that will help you in the General Assembly?

Sen. Jason Howell, R- Murray, a former Murray Independent board member presenting Senate Bill 93, which would change how the State Board of Agriculture is appointed. In his first year in the legislature, Howell was the primary sponsor of seven bills. (Provided by the Legislative Research Commission)

 

A. 
The knowledge of school issues. There are 138 of us up here and everybody has issues they’re interested in, but education is No. 1, I would say, for all 138 of us in importance to people in our districts. It has the strongest feelings because most of our constituents are parents or grandparents. The issues that affect education are just naturally important to people in our districts.

Q. Anything else that’s similar?

A. 
The main similarity to me is you are as good or bad at it as your leadership. I was fortunate on the school board. Because we had good leadership, we were able to do our jobs a lot better. And up here, you’re dependent on leadership, too. They know what is going on and direct what is going on so much more than we do as part-time legislators just like we were as part-time school board members.

Q. You were an intern in the state Senate. Is there anything that’s surprised you about your first session as a Senator?

A.
I don’t really have a point of reference from being an actual Senator, as opposed to a staff member. But this session is so different because of Covid-19. In a normal session, you can’t walk down the halls for the all people; now you can walk down the hall and not see any people. Leadership and staff are working their tails off because everybody’s just off a little bit. This is not the way we’ve done things in the past. It’s a different way to start my tenure here.

Q. Covid takes away a lot of face-to-face interaction, obviously.

A. 
And it’s kind of nice in a way, because you can take a step back and figure out what you’re doing, but the biggest benefit of having all the people here is you have all the information here. You can always get to someone and they can get to you to relay their stances on issues, give you information you need. I’m working legislation now, and one the lobbyists involved and I kept missing each other. In a normal session, we would have sat down and done it in five minutes. And it took an hour to catch up with one another. So, I think it slows down how we operate.

Q. Is there anything different in terms of the makeup of the legislature compared to when you were an intern?

A. 
I interned for Senate Republican leadership in 1994. I believe there were nine Republicans and 29 Democrats, and now the ratio is completely the opposite.

Q. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Kentucky public education?

A.
The challenge in education is like picking your favorite child. You can’t just pick one. Funding is always an issue. It’s particularly complex in education because there are federal, state and local money components. What I learned on school board is that all of the regulation and rules and compliance our schools deal with eats up time for teachers and administrators. I’m trying to be conscious of what it looks like on that side as we vote on legislation. A lot of the regulations are for valid reasons, but I am trying to be conscious of how administrators have to deal with things that we decide up here.

Q. What can you advise school board members on how to engage with their legislators on public education issues?

A. 
I encourage board members to do that on a regular basis. We hear from tons of constituents on educational issues, but very few are in the decision-making capacity. Board members are much better at understanding the issues that we need to know about because they’re more involved in it. They need to take a cohesive approach – outline what the issue is and explain the ‘why.” Remember that it can be a confusing process on this end with all of the different issues and different people reaching out.

Q. Is there hesitancy or just a lack of understanding of how best to approach legislators?

A. 
I don’t know. I suspect there’s no one size fits all answer to that. Different boards in different areas probably approach things differently. I would imagine the best way for school boards to approach this issue is to use the approach they take on other things.

Q. Should they approach legislators as individuals or as a group?

A. 
We are happy to hear from the individuals, but I think it would make more of an impact if they reached out as a board. I represent nine school districts. If I had nine letters in a file on an issue, I'd be a lot more comfortable in what I was doing, knowing where they stood.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

A. 
I encourage people to think about running for school board. In my district, a couple of systems do not have five members because there is a lack of interest in running. I found it to be a rewarding experience. I was nudged to run and four years later I was nudging people to run. I approached eight or 10 people I thought would do a good job and I could not generate any interest. Bob Rogers’ wife decided to run for my spot; she was the only person running.

Q. School board service sometimes gets a bad rap, it seems.

A. 
It can be contentious at times because people are so passionate about schools. I think part of the problem, in today’s social media age, is when you criticize someone, you don’t have to come out and do it to their face. You can take the coward’s way out and do it through social media. I think that turns off a lot of people from service. It is unfortunate.

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