Almost half of Davidson County’s School Board seats are up for grabs this election, and the outcome could change the board’s leadership, its approach to charter schools—and its relationship with Schools Director Jesse Register.
Three incumbents with a track record of largely siding with Register on contentious issues are up for re-election, and in each case, a challenger has the support of StudentsFirst Tennessee, the charter advocacy group run with ties to former Washington, D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee.
StudentsFirst Tennessee has endorsed Mary Pierce, one of two women vying for an open seat in the Hillsboro cluster.
That race feels very similar to one fought two years ago for the cluster’s other seat on the board. Once again, the money and endorsements are in particularly high gear. Last time, the race was between Amy Frogge, who won with a relatively grassroots campaign, and Margaret Dolan. The latter set a fundraising record for a Metro school board race: $113,000 when all was said and done.
This time, with the other Hillsboro seat up for grabs, Mary Pierce has raised nearly as much as Dolan did. Pierce’s total as of the latest campaign finance disclosure is $99,830, thanks in part to backing from pro-charter groups, the Chamber of Commerce and the county Republican party. Her opponent, Becky Sharpe, has stepped up the fundraising game. Sharpe has brought in $63,935, more than three times Frogge’s totals. Sharpe is endorsed by the unions representing teachers and school support workers, like custodians and groundskeepers.
As for the underlying issue of the moment, both Sharpe and Pierce says they’re in favor of whatever type of school can serve an area best, be it traditional neighborhood school or charter. However, Sharpe is quick to say that charters aren’t always the answer, while Pierce makes the case that charters should be thought of like any other public school.
In district 6, which includes part of the Antioch and Cane Ridge clusters, current school board Chair Cheryl Mayes faces opposition from Tyese Hunter. Mayes has drawn criticism from the SEIU in that union’s long-running fight with the district over contracts for support staff. That union has explicitly endorsed Hunter.
Board vice-chair Anna Shepherd represents much of the McGavock cluster. She tends to see eye-to-eye with Dr. Register but has been one of the board’s more moderate voices on the topic of charters. One of her challengers, Pam Swoner, worries that adding too many charters could strain the district. But Rhonda Dixon is a staunch charter supporter. Not only does she have the backing of pro-charter groups, Dixon also enrolled her own grandchild in one of the city’s existing charter schools.
JoAnn Brannon is currently the longest-serving member of the board, and she has decades of experience as a teacher and principal. The Overton cluster representative tends to see the district as a school system that’s methodically moving in the right direction. Challenger Bernie Driscoll, on the other hand, is strongly in favor of more charter schools, sharply criticizes the district’s academy model, and wants to see Register replaced in the director’s office. A third candidate, Edward Arnold, says the district needs more parental involvement–and several building upgrades in his district.