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In Davidson County, the inter-party battles of the state primary this election cycle have taken a back seat to a spirited debate over the future of public education.
As the growth of charter schools in Nashville accelerates and public schools become the go-to arena for a new breed of reformers, the net result has been increased enthusiasm surrounding Metro’s five school board races.
In past years, running unopposed for a seat on the school board wasn’t uncommon. Not this election. Seventeen candidates are vying for five contested seats, producing school board races that have generated unprecedented fundraising totals and plenty of intrigue.
Stakes are high. Not the least of which, the next board will likely hire the replacement for Director of Schools Jesse Register, who has served as Metro’s superintendent for three and half years. His term expires in 2015, while newly elected board members will serve until 2016.
For the local political observer, election night on Thursday, Aug. 2, could yield some interesting results. Here are five things to watch out for.
1. Will big money carry the day?
Leading up to last year’s school board races in Denver, Colo., outside money flowed to three candidates at levels that city had never seen in politically charged contests that garnered national attention.
The end result was a mixed bag: Two out of three of the candidates with the largest campaign war chests prevailed.
Denver isn’t a perfect test case for Nashville. There, candidates raised in excess of $200,000, with some receiving tens of thousands of dollars from groups such as the education advocacy organization Stand For Children. Nashville hasn’t seen this kind of money. Still, this election cycle no doubt represents a new high-dollar era for Nashville’s school board, with more than $400,000 raised overall.
Margaret Dolan, an Ingram Industries executive running in West Nashville’s District 9, has collected $112,000 in her race, smashing the previous Metro school board fundraising record and distancing herself financially from her four opponents. Amy Frogge, an attorney and active public school parent, boasts the second largest campaign war chest in District 9 at slightly more than $20,000.
Dolan has used her money to air a television commercial, which is virtually unheard of for school board races in Nashville. The ad has received plenty of play during the ongoing Olympics.
Elissa Kim, who works for the teacher recruitment organization Teach For America, isn’t far behind in the money game, raising $84,000 in her race in District 5, as she seeks to unseat school board chair Gracie Porter, whose fundraising haul is less than $20,000. Kim has used her money on a massive campaign-mailer blitz targeting likely voters.
Both Dolan and Kim have benefited from Nashville donors who regularly contribute to local campaigns, as well as the chamber, the pro-charter PAC Great Public Schools and StudentsFirst, an organization founded by former Washington, D.C., Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhee. Kim has also received approximately 30 percent of her money from out-of-state donors. Many of these folks, Kim has said, are “education philanthropists” or longtime friends, some whom she met through TFA.
The two have seemingly taken exception with media narratives surrounding their campaigns. In a recent mailer, Dolan alludes to folks –– whom she doesn’t identify –– who would “rather spread political gossip than truth to confuse voters.” Kim, in a separate campaign mailer, cites “distractions and debates about matters that have nothing to do with student achievement and what we are here to do ... .”
Wins Thursday night for Dolan and Kim shouldn’t be chalked up entirely to fundraising advantages, but the distance between the haves and have-nots can’t be ignored. Both could be looking at close races, with some calling Frogge a strong contender in District 9. Unseating an incumbent like Porter, meanwhile, is never an easy task.
2. Can Will Pinkston go from political insider to political officeholder?
There’s a dangerous tendency for some in Nashville’s chatter class to anoint the seemingly better-connected, courthouse pick as the presumed winner in local elections.
But ask former Councilman Mike Jameson how his race in March turned out for General Sessions Judge. With Jameson’s local political name-recognition, insiders were certain they had found the frontrunner. Instead, attorney Rachel Bell thumped him in the Democratic primary.
That should be a lesson for former Gov. Phil Bredesen aide Will Pinkston, who is seeking to turn years of behind-the-scenes political experience into earning the District 7 seat on the school board.
Pinkston, who currently works as a communications consultant, has capitalized on his connections in the former Bredesen administration in mounting a fundraising haul of $63,000 –– which would top most years. The former governor headlined a fundraiser for Pinkston earlier this year. Bredesen’s voice this week appeared on an automated phone call urging District 7 residents to vote for Pinkston.
Will Pinkston’s name recognition within political circles translate to votes in District 7, which includes wide swaths of southeast Davidson County?
Pinkston, a product of Overton High School, has said he targeted the school board as a way to give back to his community by representing the district where he grew up. “The biggest opportunities for change are actually at the local level,” he has told The City Paper.
Pinkston’s main competition appears to be Al Wilkins, a retired Teamster truck driver who has the support of the Service Employees International Union. A third candidate Alan Sharp last month reported raising just $10 for his race.
3. Will the school board vet lose out to the Gentry name?
Overshadowed by heated races in District 5 and District 9 is a compelling contest in historically black North Nashville between a 26-year school board veteran and another incumbent with one of the city’s most recognizable last names.
Redistricting put two incumbents who call each other friends in District 1: Ed Kindall, who has served on board since the mid-1980s and Sharon Gentry, a program director at HCA, elected four years ago. Gentry is married to Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk Howard Gentry, a former Metro vice mayor.
Kindall enjoys backing by groups such as the SEIU Local 205, which represents school custodians. The chamber is supporting Gentry.
There hasn’t appeared to be much, if any, mudslinging in District 1. In this race, voters are forced to choose between two candidates many have known for years. The outcome will either continue or halt a three-decade tenure on the board.
4. To what degree will the board lose black representation?
For years, the Metro school board was a white-majority body, but beginning in 2006 the board turned majority black. It has been that way ever since. Currently, the nine-member board has five black members.
Because Kindall and Gentry are forced to duke it out in District 1 following redistricting, the school board stands to likely lose at least one black representative. But will it lose one more?
This isn’t an insignificant question for a public school system that has a student population that is 46 percent black, highest among all racial demographics. Two-thirds of Metro students are minority.
A Porter loss could lower the number of black school board members to three: Cheryl Mayes, JoAnn Brannon and the winner of the Kindall-Gentry race. That could be offset if Wilkins prevails in District 7.
5. How will candidates backed by charter-school boosters perform?
The overriding theme of this year’s school board elections has been the rise of charter schools in Davidson County, setting off a fierce debate between education observers as candidates vie for the board.
Hoping to change the board composition to one that actively recruits national charter organizations, a group of affluent charter boosters launched a PAC dubbed Great Public Schools in April. The PAC has identified four candidates, contributing a maximum $7,100 apiece to Dolan, Kim and District 3 candidate Jarod DeLozier, and donating $2,500 to Gentry.
Neither Dolan, Kim nor DeLozier have said they blindly support all charters. They’ve generally taken the stance that they simply support good, high-performing public schools. In addition, Gentry was among the seven board members who voted to deny the application of Great Hearts Academies before the state overturned Metro’s decision last week.
Nonetheless, organizers of Great Public Schools have found reasons to support each. With board member Kay Simmons opting against re-election, Michael Hayes is currently the board’s biggest charter supporter. He could soon have allies.