As her decisive victory began to crystallize, Amy Frogge picked up her cell phone to hear a reporter ask the obvious question: How were you able to overcome all that money?
Her answer, after finding a place to talk over cheers, was what anyone would say after months of door knocking, candidates’ forums and meet and greets: “Hard work.”
In a Metro school board election cycle that saw unprecedented amounts of dollars flow to candidates — more than $400,000 overall — Frogge knocked off the one with the most: Margaret Dolan, an Ingram Industries executive who used her network of heavyweight support to build a campaign war chest of $113,000, the highest figure ever collected for a Metro school board race.
It was a clear takedown of power brokers.
Dolan’s backers included Mayor Karl Dean along with a host of special interest groups, ranging from the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce to the local teachers’ union to the education advocacy group Stand for Children. She enjoyed the support of a number of affluent charter school enthusiasts who funneled her $7,100 through a PAC called Great Public Schools. She even aired a series of television ads, virtually unheard of to land a seat on the school board.
Yet Frogge, an attorney, public school parent and until three months ago, a political unknown, didn’t just squeak out a win on Thursday.
Outspent 5-to-1, Frogge beat Dolan in school board District 9 by a 2-to-1 ratio — 3,524 votes to 1,725.
“My message resonated with a lot of parents,” Frogge, the only parent of public school children in her race, told The City Paper. That fact drew a clear distinction between her and Dolan, whose children attended prestigious private schools.
“It’s important we have someone who is a voice for parents in the schools — a positive voice,” Frogge said. “There’s a lot of negative things going on in our schools, but there’s also a lot of great things”
Dolan said she’s “at peace with the whole thing,” adding that, “We did everything we needed to do with this campaign.”
Frogge’s win should be yet another lesson in the local-election game, so often decided on the ground and through personal connections — not endorsements. And perhaps it is fitting that this latest triumph over cash came in West Nashville, which includes the district of Metro Councilman Jason Holleman, who in his re-election bid last year defeated a coalition that also included the mayor and scores of deep-pocketed donors. Holleman happened to be a Frogge backer this year.
“In local races, getting out and meeting voters and demonstrating your commitment to the community and the issues that matter still carries the day,” Holleman said.
But if money didn’t win out in District 9, can the exact opposite be said in the school board’s District 5? The answer might not be so simple.
Sure, Teach for America executive Elissa Kim’s $84,000 fundraising haul gave her massive of advantage over school board chairwoman Gracie Porter, who Kim beat by more than 200 votes. But Porter had become vulnerable — an incumbent both unappealing to a new breed of charter school supporters, and the No. 1 adversary of the Service Employees International Union Local 205, a former ally.
While Dolan hit the television airwaves, Kim stuck to a simple formula: campaign mail, letters and targeting voters. And just as Frogge had an army of public school parents who helped carry her to victory, Kim had a passionate group of charter school backers (most notably from East Nashville’s KIPP Academy) who canvassed the district relentlessly.
In the waning days of the campaign, Kim’s troops had grown tired of the labels her candidacy engendered — the “money candidate.” Kim unleashed a campaign mailer that alluded to “debates and distractions” that aren’t focused on student achievement.
“We knew going in that we needed to get the word out,” Kim said. “And money helps. But nothing can replace the ground game. We knocked on 10,000 doors. We wrote thousands of postcards. We sent out lots of mail.”
What the Frogge and Kim victories mean, of course, is two pieces to a school board whose direction is unclear today as it was a week ago.
In the end, no single education constituency won this election: not the unions, not the chamber and not the backers of the pro-charter PAC Great Public Schools, which delivered money to candidates in hopes of building a board that actively recruits more charters to Nashville. Great Public Schools saw two of its choices — Kim, and Sharon Gentry in District 1— claim victory. But two others, Dolan and Jarod DeLozier in District 3, lost.
If Nashvillians had the chance to make one defining statement last week in support of one specific cause or group, they didn’t do so.
Instead, the next board will feature a wide cast of different characters. In addition to Frogge and Kim, new members are Jill Speering, a retired teacher of 35 years who won in District 3, and the chamber-backed District 7 winner Will Pinkston, a former aide to then-Gov. Phil Bredesen.
What did become clear over the past few months is a feeling that stakes are high.
“The bottom line is this next school board will make a set of decisions that are important to shape the next generation of students in MNPS,” Pinkston said. “There’s just a lot of opportunities and challenges in front of it.”