When Metro faces a crucial issue, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce doesn’t neglect to make its heavy hand felt. Just think back to the approval of the Oilers stadium, the merger of Metro General and Meharry hospitals, the redevelopment of downtown, and countless other cases.
But at least so far, the chamber’s latest campaign hasn’t reaped much fruit. At the beginning of the year, the chamber announced the formation of an education-oriented political action committee, saying it planned to support candidates who believe the school system should be held accountable for student performance. As of earlier this week, however, the pro-business organization hadn’t been able to attract progressive, reform-minded candidates to run in this August’s election to fill four of Metro’s nine school board slots.
For some time now, the chamber has been arguing that the Metro school system gives short shrift to student performance. For that reason, chamber officials wanted to offer support and financial help to potential candidates who agree with the chamber’s opinion.
The problem is, no one’s come knocking. And the deadline for candidates to qualify for the August election is Thursday of this week.
Lewis Lavine, president of the Ingram Group and chairman of the chamber’s political action committee, says the apathetic response is partially the result of the drudgery and pressure that comes with being a school board member. “I think there’s been a good bit of publicity about how much time it takes to serve on the school board, and the reward that you get for serving, which right now is not much,” Lavine says.
Candidates have qualified in all four of the upcoming school board races, but, as of the beginning of the week, none of them was a candidate whom chamber officials and volunteers have urged to run. Still, Lavine says all may not be lost. He says some of the candidates who have qualified may, in fact, share the chamber’s agenda. “There are candidates who have qualified in each district,” he says, “and we may find that some of them have a lot to offer.”
The incumbents in three of the four seats up for election have announced they are retiring from the board. Only one incumbent, Charles Gann, plans to run again. But liberal-leaning education activists have given their seal of approval to only one qualified candidate, Deirdre Macnab, who emerged without the prompting of the chamber. An active public school parent and school volunteer who has been in chamber-related education initiatives, Macnab is running to replace school board member Kent Weeks, who is retiring.
Those same liberal education activists have been fretting in recent weeks about the lack candidates they can support in the August elections. And they are concerned that several of the candidates who have qualified or picked up petitions to qualify in school board races are conservatives who are likely to try to interfere with the city’s proposed voluntary desegregation plan.
Undeniably, there are a few of those types. But there are also others who, despite their conservative leanings, may not be radical.
Take for example, Roger Abramson, a research analyst for the Tennessee Family Institute, which has ties to conservative religion. Abramson, 27, has already run in one race this yearthe Republican primary for register of deeds. He lost that May 5 race by just a few votes to Elisabeth Cothren, who will face Democratic nominee Bill Garrett in August.
Abramson is new to the Family Institute, which is emerging as a kinder, gentler think tank than it once was. He says he
hasn’t made a final decision about the school board race but concedes there are several candidates or potential candidates who are, in fact, religious conservatives.
The right-leaning candidates have sent the city’s pro-schools liberals, particularly some Metro Council members who support the voluntary desegregation plan, into a frenzy. As a result, some liberals are trying to convince pro-schools candidates to qualify quickly before this week’s deadline. “I hope people who have contacts in the other [school board districts] are working to find people,” says Metro Council member David Kleinfelter, a staunch public education advocate whose district will be represented by Macnab if she is elected this summer. Kleinfelter says he has heard “some bad things” about some of the other candidates.
Kleinfelter says he’s “frustrated” by the lack of interest in the school board race and “can’t explain” the apathy. “But this is an American condition, not just a Nashville condition. Think about it. Look at how many people are voting,” he says, referring to the anemic 15 percent voter turnout in the May 5 county primaries.
Metro Council member Ron Turner, who chairs Council’s Education Committee, says he supports paying school board members, who currently serve without salaries, in hopes of attracting a greater number of qualified candidates in future election years.
Meanwhile, Turner describes the school board as “the most thankless job in Metro,” and adds, “It’s worse than being on the Council. Ninety percent of what you deal with is not earth-shaking. It’s long hours, and it’s pretty mundane stuff.” In addition, Turner says, the controversial desegregation issue makes this a “very difficult time” for school board members.
“But the school system still has to be administered and it has to be run,” he says, “and the folks we elect this summer will do that for the next four years.”
Call Liz at 244-7989, ext. 406 or e-mail her at email@example.com.
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