In the summer of 2023, former Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods became TASA’s first deputy executive director of advocacy. The following Q&A, originally published in the fall 2023 issue of INSIGHT, discusses his new role, the goal of his efforts, and the work he now does for districts in support of TASA’s Strategic Framework.
Why did TASA create this position? What goals was your new role created to work toward?
Advocacy is very much in our strategic plan and has been now for a while. We see advocacy in two ways. One is around specific policy, and that’s really the work of Amy Beneski and Casey McCreary and the governmental relations (GR) team. The other piece is grassroots advocacy. That’s work in local communities to try to improve how we’re advocating for public schools. So, there’s a two-pronged part of the way we see advocacy, and mine is the grassroots piece.
How does your work relate to the TASA Strategic Framework?
The TASA Strategic Framework includes three main strategic areas. One is member engagement, and another is professional learning. The third of those is advocacy, but again, we break advocacy into two parts. One is the “capital P” policy advocacy in Austin, in the Capitol, and the other is grassroots advocacy, which is really improving the way that school people engage as well as helping their communities be successful in their advocacy efforts.
Can you define “grassroots” advocacy? What does that entail?
Grassroots advocacy is working with school people, meaning superintendents, their staff, trustees, board members, and local community folks who are interested in their schools — whoever that is, parents, students, business leaders — to better advocate on behalf of their schools. That work happens in the field. I’ve been to seven or eight areas of the state in the last month, meeting with people and trying to get this work going. There are pockets where folks are passionate about this work, but then we have a lot of room to grow as well.
So, my work is in the field with school people, asking them to tell us what they want to advocate for, because that’s not TASA’s role. It isn’t our role to dictate a school or a region’s priorities. Our role is to say, “Tell us what your schools need, let’s get some agreement locally, and then we will help you advocate for that need.” There are similarities as you go around the state, but there are also unique needs. They’re unique to certain parts of the state or certain districts depending upon their financial circumstances. So, there are local needs that can be better advocated for.
In what ways might your work overlap with TASA’s GR department?
As a superintendent, I spent time in Austin and worked with legislators in the Capitol. Nobody is saying, “Well, in your new role you’re not going to do that anymore,” because once you have that experience, it’s a shame to waste it. So, I will be doing that kind of work in the Capitol when needed, talking to legislators when we’re at a critical point on an issue that we really care about. That part of the work will continue, but now I’ll focus more of my time on talking with those folks when they are not in Austin, which is most of the time. I’ll mostly spend time in the field, talking with folks about how they can improve advocacy efforts locally.
What does your work look like right now, on a day-to-day basis?
I’m talking with superintendents in the different regions, and saying, “Let’s talk about what it is that y’all want to try to advocate for.” Then I try to create an individualized plan to help with that. For instance, there’s a region in the state where the superintendents really want to work together more as a region rather than as individual districts with regard to advocacy. They have crafted a set of regional priorities that they shared with their legislators ahead of this fall’s special session. There are also districts working to improve the way they advocate for their own priorities. They already have an advocacy committee set up with local leaders, and they want to talk about improving those efforts and expanding to more people in their areas.
The work I’m doing is and will be very much individualized to the needs of districts. Initially, what that looks like is a lot of presentations at superintendent meetings regionally and in school districts about what advocacy is, and how to be comfortable with it and not be afraid of it or concerned about it. I think folks assume that if it’s “advocacy,” it must be political, and that’s not the case. It can be done in ways that aren’t partisan or political. Once folks get past that, we can say, “All right, how do we advocate for what your students and the adults who work with them all day long really need?”
What is this grassroots initiative NOT?
I think one thing to be really clear about is that this is not about TASA setting folks’ local priorities. That’s not our role. This is also not about partisan politics. That’s not what we do at TASA in any aspect of our work. We feel we can advocate for schools in a way that’s not partisan, and we work well with members of both parties. The other thing that I would point out is that this is purely about getting better policy for students and the adults who work with them. That’s absolutely what this is about.
I think there is a misconception in some places that folks don’t have time for advocacy, or that it is just an extra role that has to fall on the superintendent. One of the points I’m really trying to get across to people is that this isn’t just the superintendent’s work. It can’t be. There are 1,100 superintendents in Texas. If those 1,100 are the only people advocating for our schools, we’re in trouble. We’ve got to broaden this to include other people who care about our public schools, including board members, parents, business leaders, educators, etc. So, that’s one of my jobs: to assure superintendents that a little investment in this space will really improve their overall advocacy efforts, because it will mean it’s not solely on their plates.
If a district leader wants assistance with grassroots advocacy, what can they expect from TASA?
I’ve had district leaders ask for support in working with their local advocacy committees on setting priorities. In other words, what are the things we want to advocate for? I’m doing quite a bit of work in districts on that. Once the district has those priorities, the next step is, “What do we do with them?” And that means getting them comfortable talking and meeting with their legislators. Again, the folks who are meeting with those legislators should not just be the superintendent, but also parents and community members, business leaders and students — all of whom care about the priorities and the success of their schools. It sends a powerful message to lawmakers when it’s not just the superintendent but that it’s all these other people who really care about this school system.