Former Metro Council member John Summers has joined forces with parents and politicians to create a political action committee to champion pro-schools candidates in upcoming elections.
Summers’ organization, “Kids First, Schools First,” is the second education-oriented PAC to be created in Nashville in recent months. The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce in January announced plans to form a PAC aimed at recruiting and backing candidates who are willing to demand that public schools be accountable for their students’ academic achievements.
“Kids First, Schools First” is intended to support candidates with a specific involvement or interest in the public school system and who support increased funding for local education, Summers says.
“Right now, there’s no vehicle for parents to get involved politically and to support candidates with a special interest in public schools,” says Summers, who has two children in Metro public schools and who represented an East Nashville district in Metro Council from 1983 to 1991.
In addition to Summers, the PAC’s board includes Democratic state lawmakers Thelma Harper, Sherry Jones, and Gary Odom, all former Metro Council members. “We’ve all been Council members, we’ve all voted on tax increases, and we’ve all been concerned about schools,” Summer says. “Every one of us has also had kids in the public schools.”
The new PAC has yet to take a formal position on Mayor Phil Bredesen’s proposed 12-cent property-tax increase to fund an additional $206 million for Metro schools. But Summers says he supports the tax increase, which would pay for capital improvements and free Metro from its 42-year-old desegregation lawsuit. “Paying an additional $30 a year is a very, very reasonable investment in the schools,” Summers says. “But it can’t be a one-shot deal.”
Even if the tax increase is approved, Summers says, there will still be a need for “a dedicated commitment to funding the public schools.”
Summers says his group may not have enough money to have a significant impact in the school board races this August. But he says the group wants to be involved in next year’s races for the Metro Council. “We may even get involved in the mayor’s race,” Summers says. “Clearly, the mayor sets the tone.”
Summers gives Bredesen full credit for supporting Metro schools. If it were not for the mayor, he says, Council wouldn’t even be considering the tax increase. But the PAC’s literature still indicates a disenchantment with the priority education has been given in comparison to other city undertakings. “Too many large projects have received greater priority for our tax dollars than our public schools in recent years,” one of the group’s handouts reads.
So far, only one new school-board candidate has emerged to run in the August election. Deirdre Macnab, an active public-school parent who owns her own marketing firm, is running to replace board member Kent Weeks, who is stepping down this year.
Of the four incumbent school-board members up for reelection in August, Weeks is the only one who has made a definite decision whether or not to run again. Vern Denney, Charles Gann, and June Lambert have yet to announce plans regarding the August election, although the early speculation is that Gann will be the only one to run again.
In addition to Macnab, several others have picked up petitions to qualify for the race by the May 21 deadline, but no other candidates have officially entered the race.
For the moment, activity in the school-board races is “actually pretty slow,” says Lewis Lavine, chairman of the Chamber’s SuccessPAC and president of the Ingram Group, a public relations and political strategy firm. “It’s tough going,” Lavine says, “and there’s still the question of how many incumbents will be running.”
Candidates may not be showing much interest in the school-board race because so much attention is being devoted to the upcoming county primary races, but school advocates are still disturbed that more talent isn’t emerging for the August election.
Meanwhile, the interest in finding candidates seems unprecedented. This time around, education activistssome of whom assailed the mayor for his support of the Oilers stadium a few years agofind themselves joining forces in the same cause with that controversial project’s most moneyed and influential supporterthe Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. That simply doesn’t happen very often.
Stay tuned to this column next week for highlights from perhaps the most time-efficient and entertaining political event of the campaign season.
At the United Underlings of America’s “Campaign Steak-Out,” candidates for all May 5 countywide races will get a minute or two to explain why they are running for office and to give their views on what’s “at steak” in the election. The event takes place Sunday at Jimmy Kelly’s restaurant.
The eventalso a steak-cooking contestmay be the best way to find out, in a minute’s time, what each candidate is all about. Unfortunately, it’s only open to candidates and invited guests of the Underlings, a group of former political campaign workers and well-connected types around town. One Underling says the group exists because “top people in organizations always belong to groups. We’re the people under them who get everything done. We’re just the underlings.”
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