Nashville’s political class — and some education-minded out-of-state business executives — has found a new arena in which to play: Metro public schools and the board that governs it.
Sure, doling out money to individuals hoping to snag a seat on the nine-member Metro school board is nothing unusual. But Nashville hasn’t seen anything quite like this. It appears the school board candidate — in a city grappling with charter school growth, privatization and continued chamber-of-commerce influence — is suddenly equal to state lawmaker and Metro Council member as cash targets.
When financial disclosures trickled in to the Davidson County Election Commission last week — the deadline to submit second-quarter campaign finance reports had arrived — District 9 candidate Margaret Dolan and District 5 contender Elissa Kim shattered previous fundraising records for school board races in Nashville.
Dolan, vice president of community relations at Ingram Industries and a candidate seeking the West Nashville seat that Kay Simmons is exiting, boasted a campaign war chest of $106,404. Kim, a Teach for America executive challenging board chairwoman Gracie Porter, hauled in $81,414.
Both smashed school board fundraising marks of Simmons, former board member Alan Coverstone and ex-board chair David Fox, whose $63,065 fundraising total in 2006 was the previous high. In fact, the Dolan-Kim duo accounted for nearly half of the $377,703 raised by all 17 candidates vying for five school board seats.
District 7 candidate Will Pinkston’s campaign tally of $52,749 — which would have led the way in previous election cycles — seemed somewhat pedestrian in comparison. Coming in fourth was District 3 candidate Jarod DeLozier, who raised $35,555. Early voting for Metro’s school board races began Friday. Election day is Aug. 2.
Outside money has played a role in the fundraising jolt, specifically for Kim, who collected 30 percent of her dollars from individuals who don’t live in Tennessee, including a handful employed at high-profile private equity firms. Maxing out with a $1,400 contribution to Kim were people like Stephen Mandel, a billionaire hedge fund manager from Greenwich, Conn.
“They’re education philanthropists,” Kim said of her outside donors, including Mandel who she’s known for years through the Teach For America network. Many are longtime friends, she said. Others previously worked for her.
Yet donors from Nashville’s most affluent zip codes also left marks on fundraising efforts.
“For a number of years, people could not see a vision for how public education could be reformed,” said Lee Barfield, an attorney at Bass, Berry & Sims, who donated to Dolan, Kim and Pinkston, along with chipping in $1,000 to a pro-charter school PAC dubbed Great Public Schools.
Attitudes have rapidly changed, he said, citing various education trends at the state level. Barfield also referred to Nashville’s boom in publicly financed, privately run charter schools. He said Metro’s central office has historically served as a “monopoly,” but the charter movement is quickly upending that perception. Dollars to pro-charter candidates have followed.
“If you feel like that public education is a hole, and there’s no way out of it, then you’re unlikely to give money,” Barfield said. “On the other hand, if you see that there is a vision, a way public education can be improved — and a part of that is to have quality people on the school board — then people are more willing to step up to the plate.”
Dolan, who serves on a number of nonprofit boards in Nashville and enjoys Mayor Karl Dean’s support, said she drew heavily from her community involvement. Her donors include several Nashvillians with private school connections along with high-profile names: Martha, John and Orrin Ingram of Ingram Industries; businessman Michael Shmerling and Nashville Convention Center Authority chairman Marty Dickens, among a long list of others.
“If I look at my list of contributors, these are mainly individuals that I’ve worked with over a long period of time — many, many years — on various community endeavors, a lot of it around public education,” Dolan said.
But Dolan and Kim also benefited financially from the backing of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and a budding charter school crowd.
Each collected $7,100 checks from the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s SuccessPac, an equal amount from the pro-charter school PAC Great Public Schools, and $3,000 contributions from a PAC formed by StudentsFirst, a new education organization that former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee leads. The group, which supports charters and is wary of teachers unions, also gave money to Pinkston.
“Absolutely not,” Dolan said when asked whether her special-interest money could force her votes if elected to the school board. “As a matter of fact, I’ve made that clear to every group that invited me to speak with them.”
Amy Frogge finished a distant second in fundraising among District 9 candidates, raking in $17,864. The only District 9 candidate with Metro schoolchildren, Frogge said her figure is “sufficient” to run an effective campaign. But she added: “It’s a shame we’re spending so much money on these campaigns when it could be better used in our schools.
“People are tired of the nonsense in our schools,” she said, recounting conversations with West Nashville voters. “They’re tired of the bickering. They’re tired of the special interests. And they’re tired of politics intruding on our public schools. Public school parents are tired of hearing that the schools are broken.”
Several names appear on both Dolan and Kim’s contributor lists, people such as Steve Turner, principal of MarketStreet Enterprises who heads the Turner Family Foundation, as well as other Turner family members. Steve Turner maxed out with contributions of $1,400 to both candidates while also giving $2,500 to the pro-charter PAC.
Dolan and Kim also collected checks from Natasha Kamrani, president of the Nashville Public Education Foundation. Kamrani is the wife of Chris Barbic, superintendent of the state’s Achievement School District, which presides over Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools. The ASD’s primary strategy is handing the reins of troubled schools to charter organizations.
Kim, vice president for recruitment of Teach for America, a national group that turns college graduates into teachers, picked up 19 separate financial contributions from individuals who identified TFA as their employer, including CEO and founder Wendy Kopp. (The school board voted to renew Metro’s contract with TFA in February, electing to substantially increase its annual intake of TFA teachers to a range of 80 to 100.) In addition, Kim received money from several educators connected to KIPP Nashville, a charter organization that operates in District 5.
Kim, whose yard signs are plastered all over East Nashville’s trendy Five Points district, attributed her astounding fundraising haul to “hard work,” a robust online fundraising operation and “an enthusiastic base of people who are very receptive to the message.” Some local contributors are friends, she said, while others she met after her initial campaign announcement in April. She downplayed her PAC contributions, pointing out her 277 overall donors.
“To me, all of the PAC discussion is sort of distracting, because it’s such a small fraction of the total giving,” Kim said. She acknowledged there are competing interest groups, but said they “are all centered on kids.”
With her $81,414 fundraising mark, Kim outpaced Porter, the board chair, in the District 5 race by margin of more than 4 to 1. Porter, who has become the target of both charter supporters and the Service Employees International Union, reported raising $18,324; candidate John Haubenreich, $9,365; and Erica Lanier, $2,000. Kim has raised more money from out of state — $24,350 from 40 donors — than Porter has in all.
“Dollars do not vote; people vote,” Porter said. “It’s a connection to the community, and this is what I’m all about. I’m connected to the people of District 5 and the city of Nashville.” Asked whether outside groups contributing to school board candidates might expect something in return, Porter said, “I wouldn’t want to speculate on that.”
In recent election cycles, the chamber of commerce’s SuccessPAC has delivered similar monetary plays in school board races.
New on the scene this year, however, is Great Public Schools, the pro-charter PAC, which raised $34,300, and maxed out contributions to District 3’s DeLozier along with Kim and Dolan. Spearheading the group is a trio of affluent charter school backers: investor Bill DeLoache, a trustee of the Joe C. Davis Foundation who chairs the board of the Tennessee Charter Incubator; John Eason, a board member of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association; and Townes Duncan, managing partners of Solidus Company.
Bankrolling Great Public Schools is an assortment of business heavyweights: Auto dealership mogul Lee Beaman contributed $2,000 to the PAC; Jim Flautt, senior vice president of Asurion, delivered $2,500; Howard McClure, CEO of Change Healthcare, donated $3,000; and William Wilson, president of Cherokee Equity Group, contributed $3,000.
“The status quo is a pretty powerful thing,” said Flautt, a KIPP Academy board member who in addition to donating to Great Public Schools, contributed to Kim and DeLozier. “A lot of times you need bold leaders to make changes.”
Also among Great Public Schools’ contributors is Fox, the former Green Hills board member whose campaign in 2006 was Nashville’s first board race to usher in big dollars. Fox also donated to Dolan, Pinkston and Kim — the opponent of his former board colleague Porter.
“It’s long overdue that this amount of attention and resources is going into the composition of our school board,” Fox said. “For too long, the school board was seen as sort of a thankless and not terribly important job. Now I believe the community more widely understands that these are critical positions that have everything to do with the quality of classroom instruction.”
(Full disclosure: Townes Duncan heads the board of SouthComm, parent company of The City Paper. Neither Duncan nor anyone outside of The City Paper newsroom has input or access to stories before publication.)