by Gay Adelmann, Co-founder of Dear JCPS
It was a heated local school board race. Three of the seven seats were up for grabs. The school district – reeling from egregious mismanagement with questionable decisions and adult-centered shell games frequently put appearances and spin over needs of students – was ripe for change. Meanwhile, education reformers hidden in plain sight continued to feign best intentions while doing irreparable harm to our most vulnerable students, all in the name of accountability.
One of the incumbents, who spent over $120,000 on his election four years ago, has been mired in conflict of interest concerns since day one of his term. This heir of a healthcare tycoon, himself a venture capitalist, had the ability to spend two to three times that amount, if necessary, to hold on to his seat during this race. As the current board chair, he was seen by many as a wealthy but benevolent philanthropist, and a likely shoo-in, despite his recent apparent support of outsourcing district responsibilities to private interests, and enabling a lack of accountability from district leadership. Going up against him was going to take a candidate with gumption. The teachers’ union declined to back anyone in this race, for fear of ending up on the chair’s bad side should he win reelection.
In another district, the current incumbent who had built a reputation for asking tough questions and challenging status quo, was being challenged by a dark horse outsider. This challenger, a human resources consultant, had only moved back to town a year ago, after having spent the last 28 years in Wisconsin. But for some unclear reason, this outsider had garnered an endorsement from an elusive PAC. This PAC, run by a handful of millionaires was spending upwards of $300,000 on his marketing campaign for a local school board race! Why would such an organization back an outsider over a popular incumbent board member?
I’ll tell you why.
The school board race in question took place in Louisville, Kentucky. With $6.4 billion at stake, Kentucky is the largest of the 7 states yet to pass charter legislation. And with over 101,000 students and an annual budget of $1.4 billion, Louisville is home of the largest school district in the state of Kentucky — Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS). We have a target on our backs. Our new Republican governor ran his campaign on the promise to bring charter schools to our state, and has declared his desire to start in Louisville and Lexington, our two largest communities, which also have high urban populations. The charter gauntlet had been thrown before the election, so it’s no surprise that those who stand to profit from privatization and charter school legislation, would be willing to invest big bucks into putting business-friendly candidates in place. We suspect this is why the “favored son” was there, as well.
And now the good news.
Local public education advocacy group, Dear JCPS, frustrated with the board leadership for the lack of oversight and consequences for repeated failures of district administration, decided enough was enough. Speaking at a board meeting on May 10, we informed board members that they “either take this bull by the horns or we will vote you out!” In July, we took our promise one step further and conducted a candidates’ interest meeting.
Several potential candidates were identified, three of whom actually filed. We mounted an active grassroots campaign, worked with labor unions and members, and helped mobilize boots-on-the-ground to support the campaigns of the three candidates (two from the meeting and one incumbent) who had publicly denounced charter school legislation and privatization efforts. Our group helped educate and inform the voting public of the dangers and motivations of outside business interests and hidden agendas … and they listened!
Voters resoundingly voted out the incumbent board chair, who, according to his successful opponent’s Facebook page, outspent him 10 to 1. Voters also resoundingly rejected the dark horse, dark money candidate from Wisconsin in favor of the proven local incumbent who asks tough questions and holds district leaders accountable. All three of the group’s favored candidates were elected, despite the contrary endorsements of local papers, business leaders and big money at play!
But don’t start celebrating yet.
While Louisville and Lexington voters clearly recognized the risks to public education and voted blue in the November 8 election, the rest of our state did not. Our State House, the last Democrat-controlled legislative chamber in the South, fell to the Republicans. This, combined with an already Republican-controlled Senate, and newly elected Republican governor, means there will be absolutely ZERO checks and balances in place to prevent harmful and extensive anti-public education legislation from passing in Kentucky.
While Louisville’s recent school board selections mean we will finally have a fighting chance to stop the intentional harm that education reformers are doing at the local level, they can only do so much once the floodgates are opened at the state and national levels.
Please send reinforcements.
We have a difficult two years ahead of us. I’m not sure how much longer we can hold them off.
You can watch a news report about the November JCPS School Board election, here.