The new norm in Nashville: House-race money for school-board races 

Race to the Top

Race to the Top

It's 88 degrees outside with not a cloud in the sky and it's barely 11 a.m. Becky Sharpe has been outside for hours climbing up and down a hilly townhouse community knocking on doors minutes from the Belle Meade Country Club.

Yard signs bearing her name speckle front yards in Green Hills like the freckles on her sun-baked arms. She's running for the Metro Nashville School Board, and to win the seat she's raised the kind of money you'd need to buy a brand-new Audi. And she's not done yet.

Lots of money is finding its way into hers and other school board races across the city. As of last month, CEOs, investors, business executives, doctors, lawyers, parents and homemakers had all funneled nearly a quarter-million dollars into the city's four school board races, which will culminate in the election Aug. 7.

That sum once would have been unthinkable in what used to be low-cost, low-stakes races. No more. As debate over charter schools has increased, Nashville is growing accustomed to large sums of money pouring into school board campaigns. The last election two years ago saw one candidate, Margaret Dolan, rake in more than $110,000. Another, Elissa Kim, raised $84,000.

Thus school board races here are starting to look more like state legislative ones. In 2012, a typical hopeful, whether seasoned or starry-eyed, raised $62,000 to compete for a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Candidates this year are not far behind.

Those with the biggest war chests have something in common: a friendly, if not embracing, attitude toward charter schools. In the four races — touching the Antioch, Hillsboro, McGavock and Overton clusters — each features a contest between a candidate with lukewarm support for charter schools and challengers who want charters to play a bigger role in Nashville's education system. Those challengers include Rhonda Dixon, Bernie Driscoll, Tyese Hunter and Mary Pierce. The less-enthusiastic-about-charters camp includes incumbents Cheryl Mayes, Anna Shepherd and Jo Ann Brannon, plus Sharpe.

While people with deep pockets and a desire to see more charter schools have cut meaty checks in this race, they've done so individually. Two years ago, a trio of pro-charter activists created a political action committee called Great Public Schools that handed out some $20,000 to their candidates. But that strategy is a no-go this year, said Bill DeLoache, a leading charter advocate and member of the threesome. He declined to comment on why.  

But his wife, Mary DeLoache, has spread $6,000 evenly among this year's four charter favorites. Other former organizers of the PAC have given too, including Townes Duncan (who gave the maximum contribution of $1,500 to Pierce and $500 to Dixon) and John Eason (who split $1,000 between the same two). Both Duncan and Eason work for investment companies. (Editor's note: Duncan sits on the board of directors of SouthComm, the Scene's parent company.) Others in the business community have also spread their wealth, giving maximum or near max donations to all or most charter-friendly candidates.

The Nashville Chamber of Commerce is also investing in this year's race, but is going in a different direction from the pack of individual business leaders backing charter advocates. Instead, the chamber has divided just short of $30,000 among the three board incumbents and Pierce.

For Mayes, Shepherd and Brannon, the chamber has contributed most of the contents of their individual piggy banks. While their competitors have collected dozens of donations in support, the incumbents collectively received 20 donations, all relatively small outside of the chamber's help.

The Service Employees International Union is also making a play this year. The group, now enmeshed in a legal feud with Metro schools over contracts, is endorsing all the challengers this year, plus Sharpe. So far, records show the group has plugged $6,000 in cash into the races. What's more, it's offering candidates in-kind contributions — workers making phone calls, knocking on doors and handing out yard signs.  

Sharpe's race is a different animal. She's running against Pierce in an open race to represent the Hillsboro district, replacing sitting member Michael Hayes (who decided to bow out).

The two of them have raised the most money so far, with Pierce counting more than $66,000 in contributions and Sharpe $42,000. Pierce has also spent more, including some $22,000 largely on three mailers.

Sharpe has spent a third of that so far, with her first mailer set to go out next week. She's had campaign literature make it onto coffee tables and kitchen counters through other means, however.

While Pierce enjoys big-dollar donations from charter school advocates, Sharpe is her own largest contributor. She lent her campaign $20,000 late last month.

"Yard signs don't vote," the old saying goes. Turnout is typically low in the primaries, and the last round of elections saw sometimes as few as 3,000 people cast a ballot. For all the money pouring into the election, the school board races may come down to the usual: neighborhood ties and an old-school ground game.

"The number I care about is the number of people I've been in front of," Becky Sharpe said, before moving on to the next door.

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