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Morgan native retiring from post with state school board association

By M.J. Ellington (334)-262-1104

MONTGOMERY — A Morgan County native and former Decatur teacher recognized nationally for her skill as an advocate and as an executive will retire June 30.

Sandra Sims-deGraffenried, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, announced retirement plans Monday.

Her announcement came three months after her husband, former state Sen. Ryan deGraffenried, a Tuscaloosa attorney, died unexpectedly.

"Ryan and I had planned to go into business," Sims-deGraffenried said. "When he died, that ended that. I decided I needed to carry this organization through the legislative session."

Four-decade career

Her career in public education spans more than 40 years, including 14 as a guidance counselor and teacher at Decatur High School from 1971 to 1985.

Sims-deGraffenried said Morgan County will always be home.

She never lived more than 20 miles away until she moved to Montgomery to work for AASB in 1985.

"It was a quantum leap for me to leave, but one I have never regretted," she said.

"Of all my work experience," Sims-deGraffenried said, "working with school boards and school board members has been the most rewarding and enjoyable of my career."

She believes developing training for school board members is her greatest professional strength.

Increased visibility

Sims-deGraffenried increased her organization's visibility at the Statehouse.

She said she waged her "hardest-fought and longest battle" to keep state education funding for public schools, colleges and universities.

The battle included a lawsuit that challenged the state's funding of private schools, charities and non-education programs through the Education Trust Fund during a time when public schools and colleges lacked money for basic needs.

First female director

Sims-deGraffenried joined the staff of the school board association as assistant director. When she was promoted in 1988, she was the first female executive director to lead a major Alabama education organization. She was also one of the first female directors of a state school board association in the country.

Often in high-power organizations with membership primarily made up of men, Sims-deGraffenried earned national recognition for her advocacy campaigns for children's education, statewide training programs for school board members and leadership.

Honored nationally

In 2005, Sims-deGraffenried received the National School Boards Association's Thomas A. Shannon Leadership Award given for excellence in leadership, which the organization defines as its pinnacle of achievement.

At that time, Sims-deGraffenried was one of only six women in the organization made up of state school board association executives.

Supporters for her nomination included two powerful state lawmakers, Speaker of the House Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, and Sen. Bradley Byrne, R-Mobile.

Drawing praise

Hammett praised her relationship with the Legislature, noting her ability to "identify issues before they pop up on other people's radar."

A former state Board of Education member, Byrne observed Sims-deGraffenried's skill against state political power brokers.

"She and her association may get outspent on issues, but they are seldom outmaneuvered," Byrne said.

Sims-deGraffenried was born Sandra Hardwick, the only child of Burl and Hoyle Hardwick of Hartselle.

She graduated from Morgan County High School (now Hartselle High School) in 1962. Her daughter, Marla Sims Robinson lives in Danville and her son Todd Harwick Sims lives in Huntsville.

As Sims-deGraffenried plots her future, she said she still plans to be active.

"I always believed that the mark of a good leader is that when you leave an organization, it operates as well without you as it did when you were there," she said. "I hope that is true.

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