School board races awash in money, old-fashioned effort provides difference

Sunday, August 5, 2012 at 10:05pm

As her decisive victory began to crystallize, Amy Frogge picked up her cell phone to hear a reporter ask the obvious question: How were you able to overcome all that money?

Her answer, after finding a place to talk over cheers, was what anyone would say after months of door knocking, candidates’ forums and meet and greets: “Hard work.”

In a Metro school board election cycle that saw unprecedented amounts of dollars flow to candidates — more than $400,000 overall — Frogge knocked off the one with the most: Margaret Dolan, an Ingram Industries executive who used her network of heavyweight support to build a campaign war chest of $113,000, the highest figure ever collected for a Metro school board race.

It was a clear takedown of power brokers.

Dolan’s backers included Mayor Karl Dean along with a host of special interest groups, ranging from the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce to the local teachers’ union to the education advocacy group Stand for Children. She enjoyed the support of a number of affluent charter school enthusiasts who funneled her $7,100 through a PAC called Great Public Schools. She even aired a series of television ads, virtually unheard of to land a seat on the school board. 

Yet Frogge, an attorney, public school parent and until three months ago, a political unknown, didn’t just squeak out a win on Thursday.

Outspent 5-to-1, Frogge beat Dolan in school board District 9 by a 2-to-1 ratio — 3,524 votes to 1,725.

“My message resonated with a lot of parents,” Frogge, the only parent of public school children in her race, told The City Paper. That fact drew a clear distinction between her and Dolan, whose children attended prestigious private schools.

“It’s important we have someone who is a voice for parents in the schools — a positive voice,” Frogge said. “There’s a lot of negative things going on in our schools, but there’s also a lot of great things”

Dolan said she’s “at peace with the whole thing,” adding that, “We did everything we needed to do with this campaign.”

Frogge’s win should be yet another lesson in the local-election game, so often decided on the ground and through personal connections — not endorsements. And perhaps it is fitting that this latest triumph over cash came in West Nashville, which includes the district of Metro Councilman Jason Holleman, who in his re-election bid last year defeated a coalition that also included the mayor and scores of deep-pocketed donors. Holleman happened to be a Frogge backer this year.

“In local races, getting out and meeting voters and demonstrating your commitment to the community and the issues that matter still carries the day,” Holleman said.

But if money didn’t win out in District 9, can the exact opposite be said in the school board’s District 5? The answer might not be so simple.

Sure, Teach for America executive Elissa Kim’s $84,000 fundraising haul gave her massive of advantage over school board chairwoman Gracie Porter, who Kim beat by more than 200 votes. But Porter had become vulnerable — an incumbent both unappealing to a new breed of charter school supporters, and the No. 1 adversary of the Service Employees International Union Local 205, a former ally.

While Dolan hit the television airwaves, Kim stuck to a simple formula: campaign mail, letters and targeting voters. And just as Frogge had an army of public school parents who helped carry her to victory, Kim had a passionate group of charter school backers (most notably from East Nashville’s KIPP Academy) who canvassed the district relentlessly.

In the waning days of the campaign, Kim’s troops had grown tired of the labels her candidacy engendered — the “money candidate.” Kim unleashed a campaign mailer that alluded to “debates and distractions” that aren’t focused on student achievement.

“We knew going in that we needed to get the word out,” Kim said. “And money helps. But nothing can replace the ground game. We knocked on 10,000 doors. We wrote thousands of postcards. We sent out lots of mail.”

What the Frogge and Kim victories mean, of course, is two pieces to a school board whose direction is unclear today as it was a week ago.

In the end, no single education constituency won this election: not the unions, not the chamber and not the backers of the pro-charter PAC Great Public Schools, which delivered money to candidates in hopes of building a board that actively recruits more charters to Nashville. Great Public Schools saw two of its choices — Kim, and Sharon Gentry in District 1— claim victory. But two others, Dolan and Jarod DeLozier in District 3, lost.

If Nashvillians had the chance to make one defining statement last week in support of one specific cause or group, they didn’t do so.

Instead, the next board will feature a wide cast of different characters. In addition to Frogge and Kim, new members are Jill Speering, a retired teacher of 35 years who won in District 3, and the chamber-backed District 7 winner Will Pinkston, a former aide to then-Gov. Phil Bredesen.

What did become clear over the past few months is a feeling that stakes are high.

“The bottom line is this next school board will make a set of decisions that are important to shape the next generation of students in MNPS,” Pinkston said. “There’s just a lot of opportunities and challenges in front of it.”

9 Comments on this post:

By: sarahbaby on 8/6/12 at 1:03

Teach for America executive Elissa Kim’s $84,000 fundraising haul gave her massive of advantage over school board chairwoman Gracie Porter, who Kim beat by more than 200 votes. But Porter had become vulnerable — an incumbent both unappealing to a new breed of charter school supporters, and the No. 1 adversary of the Service Employees International Union Local 205, a former ally.

By: Kosh III on 8/6/12 at 7:12

Going door to door to campaign is not always a key to success.

In my district, Jarod Delozier came to my house and we had a nice
informative conversation. I saw him walking the neighborhood on two other occasions.
He lost. The winner? I never saw or heard from her.

By: Rasputin72 on 8/6/12 at 7:27

When one looks at the expectations of the government,the liberals and the parents of public school children versus the majority make=up of the students the equation equals failure.

This would be true even if Aristotle and Socrates were on the school board.

By: Left-of-Local on 8/6/12 at 8:44

Any way you cut it, with the stupidity of this board the last few years, this rate of turnover is refreshing! Hope they will have their heads on better than their predecessors. They can start by re-de-sgegreating the schools, and allowing kids to wear jeans again.

Then they can get to the horrible website, the bad communications, inconsistent practices school-to-school, clueless crossing guards, irritating magnet selection process, and adoption of a new idea here and there.

By: Shane Smiley on 8/6/12 at 1:14

Dolan and the other candidates who received large amounts of money from business and pacs should donate the remainder of the money raised to the school for supplies.
The teachers and parents could use a break from digging into their own pockets.
If these candidates truly want to serve the schools and the people of Davidson county, a donation of remaining campaign funds is a good start.

By: tliebergen on 8/6/12 at 2:21

Speering was out knocking and calling and had volunteers doing that too. The lack of Kosh being contacted may be due more to Speering not having a paid poliitical campaign manager to advise her about which areas of the district to knock. I live near Briley & Gallatin and didn't see DeLozier at all. DeLozier may have focused on his home Ingllewood turf to the detriment of the districtwide race. Live and learn and run again another day.

By: Kosh III on 8/8/12 at 11:57

I live down Neelys Bend; you live closer to Inglewood than I. Maybe they came and no one was home?

Money is not always the key, despite the suggestion of this article. Delozier outspent Speering 4 to 1 yet he lost.

By: CitizensWin on 8/8/12 at 2:21

Here's the deal.

The fact remains that Great Schools PAC was formed by this newspaper's President! You can thank City Paper's Townes Duncan for his contribution to the proverbial punch bowl...

Follow The Money

'A pro-charter schools political action committee donated the maximum $7,100 to each of the three Nashville school board candidates it is supporting.

Great Public Schools contributed $7,100 each to District 9 candidate Margaret Dolan (LOST), District 5 candidate Elissa Kim (WON) and District 3 candidate Jarod DeLozier (LOST).

The PAC also paid $10,000 for Nashville law firm Bass, Berry & Sims to write an amicus brief in the schools’ federal rezoning lawsuit. ( BIG WIN FOR GREAT HEARTS)

Charter schools advocates Bill DeLoache, John Eason and Townes Duncan founded Great Public Schools earlier this year'

Previously On City Paper Blues...

SouthComm president Townes Ducan: Public schools leadership controlled by “forces of darkness”

"Prominent charter school advocate Townes Duncan, who is the president of the board of directors for SouthComm, which owns the Nashville Scene and the Nashville City Paper, said the leadership of the city’s public schools is controlled by “forces of darkness” in an emotional email to friends and fellow charter supporters last week."

By: CitizensWin on 8/8/12 at 2:23

@ Townes:

Can you please clarify your "forces of darkness" reference?

Is that Star Wars or civil rights?