NAMPA — Toni Belknap-Brinegar is constantly thinking about children’s well-being.
She is the newest chair of the Vallivue School District Board. And her eldest son, Antahn, has developmental disabilities.
Antahn has cerebral palsy due to a traumatic brain injury at birth. Belknap-Brinegar has had to consider surgeries to make Antahn’s quality of life better, but often involve a painful recovery. Antahn also has severe, medicine-resistant seizures that could result in death if not managed carefully, Belknap-Brinegar said.
Making so many potentially life-altering choices regarding Antahn’s medical care helps her sift through the tough decisions she has to make as a school board trustee, she said.
“Obviously, it’s at a much larger scale because I’m making the decision for 9,000-plus students and 1,000 employees, but I think I just have practice of looking at all of the information in order to make the best decision,” she said.
Belknap-Brinegar was appointed as a Vallivue school board member in February 2011 and ran for election that May, but lost to Bob Brady. When Brady couldn’t finish his term, Belknap-Brinegar was reappointed in 2012 and later won election for a new term. In January 2022, she was unanimously voted to be board chair by her fellow board members.
“I’m very fortunate to work with some amazing board members,” Belknap-Brinegar said. “We each have our own gifts and talents. We each have passions for different topics, and we really work well together and complement each other.”
Though its members don’t always agree, that is a good quality to have in a board, she said.
Belknap-Brinegar’s thinks her appointment as chair makes her the only Black woman currently chairing a school board in Idaho, though it is tricky to know for sure, she said.
When Belknap-Brinegar asked the Idaho School Board Association for confirmation, she was told they don’t keep data on the racial demographics of school board members.
“What I do know is that when we’ve gone to Idaho School Board Association conferences, when they were in person, there’s not a lot of people of color,” she said.
Having leaders of color sends an important message to children, she said.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” she said. “So if you are a student of color in Vallivue, and you don’t see somebody (of color) at the administrative level … principal, district office, or school board, how can you envision yourself achieving that?”
“And so for me, it’s about setting a good example for the next leaders, that it doesn’t matter what you look like … if you have the courage and the drive and the desire, you too can do this,” Belknap-Brinegar said.
Belknap-Brinegar, 47, grew up in Homedale and now resides in Nampa with her husband, David Brinegar, and three sons, Antahn, 22, Imani, 18, and Dante, 14. She expressed gratitude for the support her husband, parents, and Antahn’s professional caregivers have provided, which allows her to work and engage in volunteer board service.
In addition to serving on the Vallivue School District Board — the district has schools located in north Nampa and Caldwell — Belknap-Brinegar currently serves as the chair of the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. She also was appointed by the governor to the Idaho Council on Developmental Disabilities where she served from October 2006 to June 2013. She also served on DisAbility Rights Idaho’s board of directors from September 2009 to September 2014, including as board president from 2013-14.
Belknap-Brinegar says she has always gravitated toward leadership roles. In high school, she was student body vice president her junior year, and president her senior year. As a student at the University of Puget Sound, in Tacoma, Washington, she participated in clubs and leadership roles as well, she said.
But even with those skills, there were still aspects of board service Belknap-Brinegar wasn’t familiar with at first. And she recognizes that not everyone feels ready to take on a leadership role in their community, even if they have ideas for improvement.
Belknap-Brinegar’s full-time job is working as the Conservation Voters of Idaho’s boards and commissions coordinator where she oversees a fellowship program that trains people from underrepresented communities in Idaho on how to serve on boards. Conservation Voters of Idaho is the local affiliate of the League of Conservation Voters, a national organization.
Belknap-Brinegar was hired in 2020 to develop the program, and based it on a training she completed that encouraged parents of children with disabilities to serve on boards, as well as on her own experience of what she wanted to learn before serving.
Fellows meet two weekend days per month for six months and receive training on topics such as open meeting law and parliamentary procedure. For one session, Belknap-Brinegar reserved the Boise City Council Chambers, and board members participated in a mock public hearing.
“They have to work through agenda items, so that when they get to that point, they’ve at least had some practice,” she said.
Fellows are also paired with a mentor who is a leader, though not necessarily someone who has served on a board, Belknap-Brinegar said. She advises the mentors to be their fellow’s cheerleader. The support mentors provide is not something most people get to experience regularly, she said.
“How many times as adults do we have somebody that looks us in the face and says, ‘you can do this’?” she asked. Apart from someone’s spouse or mother, it can be rare to “have a stranger that comes to you and says, ‘I believe in you,’” she said.
The first group of 16 fellows participated in the program between January 2021 and June 2021. Already, five of them have been appointed to boards at the local and state level, Belknap-Brinegar said.
The program is the first of its kind that’s sponsored by the League of Conservation Voters, she said, and has garnered attention from other affiliates under the League of Conservation Voters umbrella interested in replicating it in their communities.
The program’s success stems directly from Belknap-Brinegar’s vision and leadership in developing it, said Shevawn Bell, external relations coordinator with Conservation Voters of Idaho.
“It really speaks to the amount of thoughtfulness she put into this program, really shaping it to what community members want from the program as opposed to what she or (Conservation Voters of Idaho) see that this program could do for community members,” Bell said.
“She has dedicated her career to serving her community and lifting up the folks around her,” Bell said. “We’re just thrilled she’s getting the recognition she deserves.”
In her school board service, Belknap-Brinegar takes a collaborative, inclusive approach, said Reid Stephan, vice chair of the Vallivue School Board, who has served the majority of his time on the board with Belknap-Brinegar as a fellow board member.
“She really wants to draw out different thoughts and ideas and is just really adept at trying to coalesce and merge different viewpoints,” Stephan said. “But all focus, and this is always the core for her, is what’s best for the kids.”
Belknap-Brinegar prints the board agendas and takes detailed notes during each presentation, Stephan said.
“She’s always present,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the topic is, who is presenting … she is engaged and all in, and giving them her full attention, which is just an admirable quality in any person, but certainly in a board member.”
When the chair position opened, Belknap-Brinegar was the “natural and unanimous choice,” Stephan said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, school boards across the country have faced challenging decisions about keeping students safe with a novel virus circulating. Belknap-Brinegar said focusing on the kids during that process has meant making choices that might seem counterintuitive.
The board chose to do in-person school for the 2020-21 school year, with Mondays being a virtual learning day, she said. At the time, some districts stuck to online-only offerings or fewer in-person days per week. But Belknap-Brinegar and others on the board were concerned that district families’ lack of internet access would make remote learning nearly impossible.
“There’s a lot of areas that don’t have good connectivity,” she said. “So to force kids to be in their home trying to learn on the internet, when a lot of families don’t have WiFi, so now they’re using a phone or a hotspot … that’s a lot to ask,” she said.
The district has periodically required masks, and though they are not required at the moment, Belknap-Brinegar says many students and staff still wear them daily.
She often thinks about how to best prepare children in the district for career opportunities of the future, she said. For example, not all children may be college-bound, so helping develop the district’s career and technical education programs, or CTE, could be better developed, she said. One challenge within that is finding people with technical expertise who are willing to get trained as a teacher, and teach their craft for a teacher’s salary, she said. It will be an ongoing conversation at the state and local level to determine how to offer more hands-on, technical training to students, she said.
To allow herself to continue to serve, and tackle tough challenges, Belknap-Brinegar takes time to care for herself and balances between her obligations and just living, she said. She is extremely organized, and does breathing exercises, yoga, and thought practice, she said.
“In the mornings, I think about how I’m going to show up and be intentional,” she said, “so I think that helps make (me) a lot calmer.”