Johnnie Alum Wins Annapolis School Board Race

January 15, 2021 | By Les Poling

Joanna Bache Tobin (AGI94)

Ever since her days at the St. John’s seminar table—where she sat as both a graduate student and a tutor—Joanna Bache Tobin (AGI94) has thrived in the world of education. She spent the last 10 years chairing accreditation teams evaluating public charter schools for the American Academy of Liberal Education, and she followed up her time at St. John’s by moderating leadership seminars at the Aspen Institute. But despite her wide-ranging passion for learning, Tobin never considered applying her experience to elected office—until last year. On December 14, 2020, after running a largely virtual campaign and winning her race in November, she began her term as district six’s first-ever elected member of the Anne Arundel County Board of Education.  

Back in the early 1990s, Tobin hadn’t even contemplated the idea of holding public office. She was, however, an avid learner—a characteristic that helped draw her to St. John’s. She discovered the college after her parents retired to Annapolis; while making her own transition from New York City to Washington, DC, Tobin accompanied her father to a St. John’s community seminar. She was struck by the liberal arts approach, and only a couple years later she decided to enter the Master of Arts in Liberal Arts program. “I didn’t really know what I would ‘do’ with [the degree], I just really wanted to do it,” she recalls. “And I really enjoyed it.”

She loved the interdisciplinary approach, the focus on discourse, the reading list. And she treasured working with former tutor Lawrence Berns (H00). “Mr. Berns and I came from vastly different political perspectives, but we had wonderful conversations about the texts and the basic underlying questions [in the reading list],” Tobin says. Berns mentored Tobin as she became one of the first students to write a Graduate Institute master’s essay; he also encouraged her to pursue a doctorate degree, leading her to earn a PhD from Georgetown University. Following her doctoral studies, the college welcomed Tobin back as a tutor. “I knew that I was less interested in the typical academic path,” she muses. “I enjoyed the liberal arts approach; the chance to integrate different texts and different questions [in the classroom].”

Tobin taught at St. John’s from 2002–2006; after that, in addition to her work as an evaluator and a seminar moderator, she served on and chaired the board of an Annapolis private school and chaired the Anne Arundel County Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Recycling. Most recently, as the parent of a Class of 2020 Annapolis High School student, she spent three years as vice president of the Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) at Annapolis High. Her experiences, along with her daughter’s graduation, prompted her to ponder a school board run.

“Partially from teaching undergraduate, I was really interested in what students are getting before they come to college,” Tobin says. “Then, in the course of being a parent, I became increasingly engaged in K–12 education.” Her work with the PTSA largely had to do with governance and oversight—which are among the chief duties of the board of education. “All the pieces just came together,” she says. On November 19, 2019, she officially declared her candidacy, vowing to combat education inequity in district six.

Tobin calls running for office “the hardest, scariest thing I’ve ever done… before COVID hit, the prospect of walking up and just knocking on someone’s door was terrifying.” But even after the campaign moved entirely online, she found herself pleasantly surprised by community engagement in the race. Perhaps because 2020 marked the first board of education election in Annapolis’s district—until a 2016 referendum, every Anne Arundel school board member was appointed—she found that “people were remarkably receptive.” Pointing out that 51 percent of the Anne Arundel County budget goes toward education, she adds: “It’s a central issue. Education affects everyone, regardless of whether you actually have children in the system.”

Tobin and her primary opponent, India Ochs, were hardly on opposing sides of the political spectrum. Both campaigns focused largely on combating inequality in Annapolis schools, and the two agreed on issues like the Black Lives Matter movement. However, certain characteristics set them apart—most importantly, Tobin believes, their differing life and career experiences. “The work of the board of education is very peculiar in that it is quasi-judicial, quasi-legislative, and quasi-executive,” she says. “It demands the ability to weigh all those considerations and understand the complexity of the role. And so having a fair amount of experience on boards, working in leadership, training leaders, I think, served me well [with voters].”

Of course, the race was the easy part. Now comes Tobin’s principal challenge: curbing the inequities she railed against throughout her campaign. Her website lists three broad priorities for her time on the school board: Ensuring every student has the necessary resources for success; attracting and retaining the best teachers in Anne Arundel County; and holding schools accountable for effectiveness and transparency, which includes quickly addressing issues around bias and hate crimes.

While such encompassing goals can feel abstract, Tobin cites a variety of concrete issues she plans to combat, one of the most straightforward being school transportation. In Annapolis—one of the densest populations in Anne Arundel—long-standing rules dictate that students who live within a half-mile of their schools can’t access a public school bus route. The result: children are asked to either rely on private transportation or, if that’s not an option, walk to school, regardless of traffic or route safety.

“If kids can’t safely and reliably get to school, it doesn’t matter how great the schools and the teachers are,” Tobin points out. “And it is often a real barrier for children who come from more underserved backgrounds.” Similarly, she says, there are no after-school activity busses at Annapolis High—forcing students hoping to participate in extracurriculars into the same conundrum, and leaving those without private transportation behind. With public school transportation for all students, Tobin reasons, that basic hurdle can be navigated.

Transit is merely one of the more obvious inequities Tobin hopes to address—others include construction updates, reducing class sizes, and addressing student mental health. “COVID has revealed problems that were already there in very stark terms,” she says. “It’s also made clear something I’ve believed for a long time: there have to be some fundamental changes in public education moving forward. We have to make sure that the most vulnerable students receive what they need.” 

That task is by no means simple, and a budget devastated by the economic fallout of COVID-19 won’t make things any easier. Still, Tobin is determined to see her mission through. There are tangible ways in which she feels she’ll be able to measure the board’s success: improving teacher compensation, for example, or making progress on school construction back log. More importantly, “there’s a broader, almost philosophical goal that I seek,” she says. “I think the best thing that could possibly happen while making education policy for 83,000 students, and their families and their teachers, is that no child ever has to grow up and be cynical about the adults who make the decisions that affect them.”

“In the broadest possible sense, I ran for this position because I believe that you can’t have a sound functioning society, and you certainly can’t have a sound functioning democracy, if you don’t have sound public education,” Tobin concludes. “It’s really that simple.”