It was democracy writ small last Thursday at Charlotte Pike's West Police Precinct. Some 30 people — many with school-age children fidgeting beside them — gathered for the Exceptional Education Forum, an event organized by parents of Metro students with disabilities.
Seated up front were nearly all the candidates running in this year's Metro school board elections. A third-grader named Brooke, representing Nashville's many Exceptional Education students, picked questions out of a hat. With its town-hall vibe, the scene represented the city's school board races as most people remember them — low in financial means and stakes, high in voter-candidate interaction and neighborhood concern.
But that made it impossible not to notice that the election's two top fundraisers were missing — Margaret Dolan, running in District 9, and Elissa Kim, from District 5.
Dolan and Kim both expressed regret at missing the meeting due to previously scheduled campaign events. Their absence, however, was as hard to ignore as their presence in the costliest school board races in Metro history.
Financial disclosures filed earlier this month by the Dolan and Kim campaigns revealed that their combined fundraising accounted for nearly half of the $377,703 raised by 17 Metro school board candidates last quarter. Their individual totals — $106,404 for Dolan and $81,414 for Kim, 30 percent of which came from out-of-state donors — stunned veteran political observers, for whom school board races are usually at best Triple-A inside baseball. The numbers rival those of a state House or Senate run.
Dolan's and Kim's green campaign signs may represent a new era for local politics — one that more closely resembles the post-Citizens United, PAC-laden landscape of today's national elections.
Why the sudden vigor and the six-figure rainmaking? There's much at stake in the current elections. Some contributors are backing candidates they hope will put up less resistance to charter-school operators hoping to establish Nashville outposts. Plus the board members elected this term will have a hand in naming current MNPS director Jesse Register's replacement if he leaves when his contract is up in 2015, as many expect he will.
In short, the incoming board will exert unusual influence over the future of the city's educational system. And so may their backers.
The environment of this year's school board races may be "unprecedented," says former Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, who can be heard asking voters to support incumbent Gracie Porter on a robocall that started showing up last week. But he doesn't see that as entirely negative. In a sense, he says, the influx of money and interest represents a "logical and reasonable outgrowth" of what he hoped would be his primary legacy — placing education atop the city's agenda.
"I do think there is consensus as a whole that education is the most important thing we do," Purcell says, speaking to the Scene at his downtown law office. "If people believe that and understand that, then they have to make the next natural step, which is the school board is a critical part of the governance and success of the school system. And that should result in this increased interest in school board elections — and in fact, it is."
With that interest, however, has come a corresponding increase in financial contributions, from interests within the state and beyond. Purcell predicts it will take more than one cycle to determine its effect.
"My fear, frankly, is that large amounts of money from all over in local races is the new normal," Purcell says, predicting a trickle-down effect from the federal campaign-finance dam-break. "If large amounts of money in that way appear to change election results locally, then you'll see more of it."
In that context, the District 5 race — in which Kim is challenging incumbent Gracie Porter, as well as John Haubenreich and Erica Lanier — has emerged as a test case of sorts. The race to represent the expanded district, which covers much of East Nashville and now reaches into downtown and North Nashville, features four fundamentally different candidates whose campaigns embody the philosophy they'd bring to the board.
"I think the money is sort of tied in with the different approaches in the candidates," says Haubenreich, who swore off PAC money when he entered the race. "My fundraising and the decisions I made about how to run the campaign are, for me, a reflection of my priorities as a candidate. So my priorities are very much a focus on local schools, a focus on neighborhoods, a focus on building stronger communities from the ground up."
Now a practicing attorney and sitting president of the Davidson County Young Democrats, Haubenreich says his relatively small fundraising effort — $9,365 last quarter — reflects a choice to spend more time knocking on doors than courting deep-pocketed donors. A former Scene contributor and local education blogger under the name Nashville Jefferson, he says his 10-month-old daughter will attend the neighborhood public school. He focuses on neighborhoods, he says, because he believes they're the key to fixing the system.
"I don't think there's a top-down solution," Haubenreich says. "I think if there were a policy solution that we could implement at the district level that would filter down and fix everything, we would have had that 30 years ago."
Lanier, elected by parents for the third consecutive year as chair of the Parent Advisory Council, is perhaps the more typical school board candidate. Her campaign relies less on financial contributions than holding signs with her family. She says she got in the race to practice what she preaches on the advisory council: parental involvement.
"I can't advocate to other parents to be strong dynamic leaders, to advocate for not only their children but their children's peers and any child that they find that is in need, if I'm not doing that myself," she says.
Given the general perception that District 5 is a two-person race between Porter and Kim, Lanier, who raised just $1,994 last quarter, was surprised when approached by a reporter after the forum. She tells the Scene she's lucky to get "one or two gracious lines" in most stories.
"It kind of feeds into the misnomer out there that I'm just this concerned parent that just popped up out of the blue," Lanier says. "Which is completely not the case." She has two daughters attending magnet schools, one starting as a freshman at Hume Fogg High School, the other a third-grader at Jones Paideia Elementary.
Lanier says she's neither for nor against charter schools. The focus, she says, should be on quality education regardless of classification.
But charter schools have become the issue of the election — and both the incumbent and her well-funded challenger say the way they are dominating the discussion is unfortunate. Porter tells the Scene that "charter schools have been overstated as far as what's important in this district," while Kim says "a sad part of this whole process" is that it's become a "referendum on charters."
Nevertheless, the two have been set up as opposites on the charter spectrum. Porter pushes back against the idea that she is anti-charter, a charge largely linked to her vote to reject KIPP Nashville's proposed expansion. Even though she later voted to approve KIPP's plan for a new middle school, she's feeling heat from charter advocates — as well as from the Service Employees International Union, which declined to endorse in District 5 this year after Porter did not fight the privatization of custodians.
Porter's public-school parent cred couldn't be trumped. Currently the MNPS board chair, she has lived on the same East Nashville street for 42 years. Her two adult children both graduated from Stratford High, and her granddaughter is about to start at East Middle School, a magnet school.
Not surprisingly, Porter defends what has been achieved in the city's schools, arguing there has been more progress made than critics acknowledge.
"We are making great strides in this district," Porter says. "When you raise your graduation rate from 47 percent to 76 percent over a three-year period, that is very significant. When you have less than a 2 percent dropout rate — no one speaks about that."
Her campaign approach essentially mirrors her vision for Metro schools: Stay the course.
"Knocking on doors, making phone calls. That was our plan all along, and we've not really deviated from that," says Emily Ogden, Porter's campaign manager. But the overwhelming flood of money into rival Kim's coffers was something the campaign hadn't expected.
"I had set a budget to start with," she says, "again thinking — local school board race, we're going to do a couple of mail pieces. We've raised essentially what I anticipated we were going to raise. ... I have no idea what you do with $100,000 in a school board race."
The irony is, Kim somewhat agrees. She concedes that her campaign does not need that much money, but says it reflects of "a ton of interest and hope about what we could do in Metro Nashville."
She says, however, that she knew her candidacy would require raising more than the usual amount of money. In her own words, she is an "utter unknown" — and what people do know about her involvement with charter school operators has caused anxiety in some quarters.
Along with sitting on the board of KIPP Nashville, Kim serves as the executive vice president for recruitment and admissions at Teach for America, the Peace Corps-inspired education initiative whose former VP of public affairs, Kevin Huffman, is now the state's education czar. Her fundraising haul included contributions from a number of high-powered charter school backers, as well as TFA colleagues such as CEO and founder Wendy Kopp.
PACs contributing to Kim's effort include the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce's SuccessPAC — which also endorsed Porter — as well as Great Public Schools. The latter is a pro-charter PAC formed by John Eason, a Tennessee Charter School Association board member; Bill DeLoache, who chairs the board of the Tennessee Charter Incubator; and Townes Duncan, a managing partner at Solidus Co. who heads the board of SouthComm, parent company of the Scene. Kim has also received contributions from the pro-charter PAC started by StudentsFirst, an organization headed up by former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor and now part-time Nashvillian Michelle Rhee.
That has raised concerns that Kim's election could create a conflict of interest when the school board deals with TFA and charter-school operators. But Kim says her involvement has actually made her a harsher critic of charters, and that she would recuse herself from any board discussion involving TFA.
Kim has no children, but attributes her devotion to education to her experience teaching at a large public school in New Orleans.
"I come at this from a social justice angle," she says. "Those are my roots. I saw firsthand a bunch of low-income kids in New Orleans not getting a fair shot, and that made me profoundly angry."
As for the campaign and her fundraising success, she says most voters she encounters are unaware of the money. If they are, she says, they see it as a sign she's worth investing in.
"We're not fooling ourselves," Kim says. "I mean, money only gets you so far. At the end of the day it's can you actually put together an organization and an army of volunteers who actually believe in you to get out there and get the word out. That's what is going to determine the outcome of this particular race."
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