Tom Gentzel stands at a podium with the words "public education" behind him

It was early in Thomas J. Gentzel’s professional career in county government when an unexpected opportunity came his way. Little did he know that it would change the course of his life and forge a deep commitment to public education and school board governance.

While working for the County Commissioners Association in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1980, Gentzel was approached about a lobbying job with the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA). “It sounded interesting, so I decided to try it,” he recalls. “I thought I’d do it for a while. I was still in my 20s and open to opportunities.”

He found four decades’ worth of school board-related opportunities: more than 32 years at PSBA (first as a lobbyist, later as director of governmental and member relations, and finally as executive director), followed by eight years, starting in 2012, in the top leadership position—executive director and CEO—of the National School Boards Association. Leading a staff of more than 70 in Alexandria, Virginia, Gentzel has overseen NSBA’s legislative, legal, public advocacy, and member services initiatives for the past seven and a half years.

“I’ve thought about this a lot recently, how serendipitous it was that I wound up taking a job at the school boards association just about 40 years ago,” says Gentzel, who will officially retire from NSBA in June.

Inspiring and committed

What started as a career became a calling that deeply resonated with the self-described amateur historian’s interest in American history. An hour-long conversation with Gentzel is peppered with references to Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings about the importance of associations in America; Thomas Jefferson’s views on the need for an educated citizenry for a society to be self-governed; and then-candidate Barack Obama’s 2008 speech on race relations and the ongoing work needed to make this nation “a more perfect union.”

“I’m a passionate advocate of public education but would be the first to say we’re not doing the job we need to do for all our kids. If we’re serious about this work, we have to make sure every child in America has access to a great public school where they live, and we’re not there yet,” Gentzel says. Achieving this goal demands “having a candid conversation about what we can do to continuously improve public schools,” he adds.

It’s a drum that Gentzel beats frequently and to great effect, say colleagues and admirers in the school board and education community. “I’ve always found Tom to be an eloquent spokesperson for public education and local school board governance,” says Lisa Bartusek, executive director of the Iowa Association of School Boards. “I see him time and time again in speeches, articles, panel discussions, and in the media describing the value of public education, the difference that local school board governance makes, and I can’t tell you how many times I‘ve said, ‘I wish I’d said that.’ And then I do by quoting him,” she laughs.

Richard Long, executive director of the Learning First Alliance, a partnership of leading education organizations working to improve student learning in public schools, has participated in numerous forums and panels with Gentzel over the years. He praises the NSBA chief’s “realistic advocacy,” “thoughtful and strategic” approach in interactions, and “ability to unpack an issue and then focus on how it’s positive for the [education] field and effective for NSBA.”

Kenneth Smith, president and CEO of Jobs for America’s Graduates, Inc., a national youth employment and training program, consulted with NSBA’s Commission to Close the Skills Gap. He calls Gentzel “one of the most inspiring and committed leaders” that he’s met in 40 years of working in the education workforce space.

Adds Rich Bagin, executive director of the National School Public Relations Association: “Tom has an ability to analyze and slice through important issues that some other people often miss. That was an asset to us when he served on our board.”

Colleagues from Gentzel’s days as a lobbyist, leading governmental and member relations, and serving as PSBA executive director say that his management style has been rooted in inclusion and ensuring that as many voices as possible are given the opportunity to be heard. “It seemed important to him to get a lot of input from the various people on the staff who were responsible for the different aspects of serving our membership,” recalls Stuart Knade, PSBA’s senior director of legal services.

He had a way of bringing people together, even when they had divergent viewpoints, and “focusing on those points that are key to moving an issue forward,” says Barbara Bolas, president of Pennsylvania’s Upper St. Clair School Board and PSBA president in 2001. Bolas served as the 2008-09 NSBA president.

Iowa’s Bartusek notes that “across the country at the state level, each state is in such a different situation politically. The school districts are in very different situations: rural, urban, suburban, and such a diversity of need. Tom is excellent at listening, striving to draw all of those diverse views and needs and situations toward common ground.”

Ownership for student achievement

A proud product of the Keystone State, Gentzel grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, and attended The Pennsylvania State University. “It was a great town to grow up in,” he says. Although not a big city, it is a university town where racial and ethnic diversity enriched the community and Gentzel’s world view. “My family wasn’t directly involved with the university, but they owned rental property,” he says. “What I appreciated years later is that, as a kid, I would meet students from different countries from around the world, and it was just a way of life growing up. By the time I got to high school or certainly college, I realized that a lot of kids who lived 10 miles from where I was never had that experience.”

The role that public schools can play to bring people together from different walks of life is important, but Gentzel says he worries because charter schools, vouchers, and the choice movement often can be a means for resegregating schools, “and we’re seeing a lot of evidence of that.”

From his earliest days at PSBA, advocating for school boards “was never just a job,” he explains. “I always felt strongly about the need to have really effective school boards and that there’s a correlation between what boards do and how they spend their time and student achievement.” This point was highlighted in the 2001 Lighthouse Study, Gentzel notes.

“Back in the day,” he says, the role of school boards typically rested with “putting the resources in place.” Those resources were often referred to as the four Bs—buildings, buses, budgets, and ball games. That mindset allowed school boards to hand off to the superintendent the responsibility for all things related to student performance.

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“The big blinding glimpse of the obvious, when you think about it,” says Gentzel, is if boards “don’t feel some ownership for student achievement, if they just feel that’s the superintendent’s and the teachers’ responsibility, then they are making a big mistake. If they realize their ownership role, then they can devote their efforts to support student achievement.”

Clearly, boards should not be in the business of running their districts on a day-to-day basis, and they have a lot to do that’s not directly related to student achievement, “but if they don’t organize their board meetings in a way that they’re talking about student achievement and how they allocate resources to improve student achievement, then they’re probably not as engaged in it as they should be,” he says. “The best test is to look at a board’s agenda. It says a lot about where priorities lie.”

District management

Emphasizing a governance approach that involves both the school board (for setting the vision, adopting policies, allocating resources, and providing accountability) and the superintendent (as the chief education and executive officer of the system), along with a governing culture that emphasizes how the two entities interact, has been a priority during Gentzel’s tenure leading NSBA.

It’s a priority echoed by Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. Domenech and Gentzel’s like-minded view on district management, as well as their friendship and mutual respect have been on display during their joint appearances at each organization’s annual conferences.

“We do it every year twice, and we’re proud of the fact there’s never a script, no pre-planning,” says Domenech. The spontaneous give-and-take on board-superintendent relations offers “a great example of the relationship that we have. We can interact with each other, have a great time doing it, and make it an informative session for the people who show up.”

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The two have worked closely on numerous initiatives, including passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015, and have become fast friends. “I don’t recall one time when we’ve been of a different mind,” Domenech says.

There was, however, that little friendly wager over the likelihood that ESSA, the federal education law, would be passed by Congress. “I was of the opinion it would never happen,” he says. “Tom was an optimist and said, ‘Yes, it will.’” The two bet a steak dinner on the outcome, and when the bill passed, Gentzel “was very happy to not only collect his meal, but also let the world know that I had been the pessimist and that he proved me wrong,” Domenech says.

Along with the passage of ESSA, which included NSBA’s successful effort to include provisions that boost local governance as part of the nation’s strategy to improve schools, Gentzel says he’s particularly proud of NSBA’s advocacy work “on the Hill, in the courts, and in the public arena. I think we’ve done a great job in terms of getting the message out from local school officials about the importance of local governance.”

He also cites the work done on equity as noteworthy. Along with reorganizing staff to sustain this commitment, “the board went through a really good process of coming up with a common definition of equity, and we’re seeing a lot of state associations doing great work with this, and we’re supporting them actively.”

And while “we’re not out of the woods yet,” he says that the “serious financial problems” related to the association’s pension are now being managed. “We had to make some difficult decisions in terms of furloughing some staff and cutting some expenses, but we’re starting to build cash and are finally growing reserves.”

As a former state association executive director and former chair of NSBA’s Organization of State Association Executive Directors, Gentzel remains committed to the view that NSBA’s primary purpose is to serve its state school boards associations. “They’re the members. We’re their Washington office. That’s why we’re here.

“Everything we do, I hope, goes back in some way directly to policies that our board adopts or that our delegate assembly approves, or that our state associations are telling us in one way or the other that they want us to do.”

Staying engaged

Gentzel stresses that he’s loved leading NSBA but is at a stage in his life where he wants “to have a little more control over my schedule.” With that freedom, there will be more time to spend with his family (wife Sherrin, three sons, and five grandchildren) and more time for non-work-related travel—perhaps a road trip along Route 66, visits to some presidential libraries, or following the Lewis and Clark Trail, says Sherrin, a retired schoolteacher.

“Beyond that, I’d like to stay engaged,” Gentzel says. “I want to continue to find a way I can contribute in support of public education, school governance, and leadership issues.” There’s a lot of work to be done, and there always will be, he adds: “I’m not ready to leave the vineyard and am willing to keep toiling on a slightly different schedule.”

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