Stephanie Groce has a hard time believing she is the most senior member of the Columbus City Schools board of education.
Sometimes she finds it hard to believe she's still on the board at all.
Two years ago, Groce was dropped by the local Democratic party a month before her election bid, pulled from the sample ballot and set adrift in the uncertain seas as an unendorsed political candidate. Now, she is in her second term, as board vice president, and helping to lead the state's largest district through the tumult of building closings and restructuring while guiding another new crop of board members through the wilds of school politics.
She doesn't come across as a rabble-rouser-especially on a board that once counted fatigue-wearing, shoe-pounding Bill Moss among its members. Fitting in equally well as a soccer mom at the Whetstone fields, the vice president of consumer and professional research for Saperstein Associates and lifelong Columbus resident thought of herself as doing her parental and civic duty when she sought in 2005 to fill the unexpired two years of Stephanie Hightower's term.
Groce, whose daughter, Lainie, was at the time entering kindergarten at Winterset Elementary School, believed a parent's perspective was what the board needed-especially since Hightower's departure coincided with Hightower's decision to send her child to a private high school.
"We needed someone on the board to send the message that we want to support schools," says Groce. "I thought I might as well apply. It struck me as something I thought I could do. No one was more shocked than I when they selected me."
Jeff Cabot, who served on the board until 2007, says Groce's preparation sold him. "I never met or heard of her until she came to our attention when she applied to fill the vacancy," says the executive director of Kids Voting Central Ohio. "We were all impressed. She knew an awful lot about Columbus schools. She brought with her this big notebook of information she had gathered. Everyone on the board was impressed. It was a unanimous choice."
The board may have been impressed-but some in the community sure weren't. Just after her swearing in-as Lainie and Groce's husband, Steve Niehoff, looked on-Groce's first minutes as a board member were filled with catcalls and racially charged insults from nearly a dozen members of the audience; they declared that Hightower, an African-American, shouldn't be replaced by a white woman, who, they thought, also was unqualified.
It took police intervention and a hastily called executive session to restore calm-to everyone but Groce, who did not offer a statement or a vote the remainder of the meeting. "I was in shock," she says.
And she adds, "I had requested a copy of the agenda in advance, but no one sent it, so I couldn't vote on anything. I remember coming home, and when I opened up the door, my daughter said, 'I'm never going back there again.' I said, 'Lainie, honey, I might not, either.' "
But Groce did go back and took on the board's challenges. In her first year, it confronted economic challenges by cutting $30 million from the budget, shortened the day for middle- and high-school students and started the district's first charter school.
She relied on what she considered "invaluable" advice from Cabot and Karen Schwarzwalder, who also no longer serves on the board. "Go to every meeting you can to learn the lay of the land and get to know people," Groce says she was told. "And don't ever feel you have to make a comment. Listen four times more than you talk."
That's not to say Groce didn't speak-and when she did, it often was with a candor that invited controversy. Groce criticized teacher and administrative raises by publicly questioning what business would pay employees more if it kept losing customers to competitors, as Columbus schools do to charter schools. She suggested privatizing school cafeteria services to improve the product and reduce the costs-to the chagrin of the school employees' unions. (The district adopted just such a program this year.)
She also wasn't afraid to cross the line the board had drawn in praising in public and criticizing in private-to let superintendent Gene Harris know when she felt the board was not well enough informed.
Her supporters, which kept growing, appreciated that she called things as she saw them. Her detractors, however, increased as well, and Groce made some powerful enemies who didn't assert themselves until her bid for a full term was well underway for the November 2007 election.
"I felt I was doing a good job, and I liked it enough," says Groce. "I met with the party early on, and it endorsed me. I was honest about how I felt on issues. It was no secret I was once registered as a Republican or that I supported high-performing charter schools or that I supported merit pay. But none of that seemed to be a problem."
It soon became one.
Groce says she had begun to notice that her phone calls to Democratic party headquarters were no longer being returned, but she didn't think much of it until one of her supporters cornered her at a fundraiser for Columbus City Councilman Hearcel Craig and suggested, "There is something going on with you and the Democratic party."
A subsequent phone call from another supporter revealed, "I think they are going to unendorse you," to which Groce recalled saying, "I didn't even know that could happen."
Groce says she secured a meeting with Democratic party chief William Anthony, who laid out the issues: Democrats didn't feel she was pro-union and objected to her position on charter schools-which Groce says was the same view as the national party, and the same she had held since her first appointment interview.
"Bill and I sat down, one-on-one," Groce recalls, "and I said, 'I don't think it would be a good move for you to unendorse me,' and he said, 'We won't.' "
But just weeks later, on Oct. 16, the Democrats' central and executive committees met at party headquarters-at the same time as a school board meeting-and voted three weeks before Election Day to rescind Groce's endorsement. She learned of the action from a Dispatch reporter.
But a funny thing happened on her way to political oblivion. She was the name on everyone's lips, thanks to multiple stories, editorials and even a Dispatch political cartoon.
"In one way, it was so funny, since it's not like I was raising a lot of money," Groce says. "I was running the campaign off my dining room table with my husband and my family. They could have beat me if they would have just left me alone."
Around Columbus, school parents spread the word through e-mail and phone calls: If you want an independent voice on the school board, they said, vote for Stephanie Groce.
Among those in her corner was Columbus attorney Catherine Kurila, a Columbus schools parent whose daughter went to preschool with Groce's child. Kurila picketed Democratic headquarters during the party's unendorsement vote, and she says it was Groce's pragmatism and devotion to children that earned support from parents.
"It was very important to have at least one parent on the school board that has a vested interest in Columbus City Schools," says Kurila. "She is doing an excellent job promoting the needs of children."
Rather than give up, Groce learned to campaign strategically. With her limited funds, she dropped literature in areas with likely voters and nightly worked the absentee voter roles. She earned the endorsement of the Dispatch, which stated, "Of all appointees to the board in recent memory, Stephanie Groce has been among the most impressive. In her two years of service, she has quickly gained a reputation for integrity, for her mastery of complex issues and for questioning the administration when necessary."
The result on election night: She was the third highest vote getter of the four elected candidates. "I was exhausted after it was over, but I knew I had a job to do," she says. "I also knew, from a rational point of view, that I was never in a better position. I had the gift of independence. That's a wonderful gift."
Two years after the election, she was selected to serve as vice president, alongside president Carol Perkins. From that leadership seat she has helped direct the district through another round of school closings and the pending opening of a quartet of theme-based facilities.
"We value [the board's] strong work, and Stephanie has a very strong work ethic," says superintendent Harris. "Having a child in the school district brings special perspective to any of us who work in education. We have the opportunity to see how the policy-level work impacts the day-to-day actions of our very own children. She has a very valuable perspective, because she's a parent, in contact with other parents. She can informally hear their hopes, dreams, desires."
"One thing I know as a public official is that working in public is challenging, and sometimes very unpredictable," Harris adds. "What drives anyone in a public position like [the board], or what ought to drive them, is accomplishing the end goal. Stephanie, along with all of our board members, is very focused on high levels of graduation and developing the skills and abilities to go to the next level."
As for the party that once cast her aside, Anthony says he has "no problems with Stephanie" and has paid little attention to her performance on the board. "That was a long time ago," he says when asked about the unendorsement, which he acknowledges was a rare action for the party. "I have not spent a lot of time thinking about Stephanie."
More than two years after the political struggles that should have ended her career, Groce recognizes she is still an outlier when it comes to the average Columbus politician, and she remains apart from both parties. And while she ponders running for another term when her seat comes up next year, Groce is adamant that the school board is the last stop on her political trail.
"I know for some people this is viewed as a stepping stone, but for me it's a destination," she says. "We need to send a message: If you are going to value education, this is the most important job in town."
Nicole Kraft is a freelance writer.