As a person who often says bad things about people with money, I’m always a little wary of the reaction my writing may have on others. Being married to a teacher and considering that the majority of the stuff I write is about education, I’m doubly careful. Education is a subject where passions run especially high. Still, I often leave the house without my filters on, so it’s not uncommon that someone gets offended by something I express. Sometimes, those people deserve to be offended. But down in Williamson County, Tennessee, concern is growing that something is not right and I feel compelled to comment because it could eventuall affect us all.
Williamson County is the adjacent southern county to Nashville’s Davidson County. It’s a wealthier county with a conservative bent. If you are in the Northeast, think Bucks County, but with Civil War money instead of Revolutionary War money. As expected, the schools are excellent and the school superintendent exceptional. But that doesn’t mean that in today’s hyper-sensitive culture they are immune from the wackiness that is going on.
This will probably get me in hot water, but it’s all too crazy not to talk about. Things started getting interesting during the last school board race, which may or not have been influenced by the Koch Brothers, but did see a large influx of cash nonetheless. The challengers defeated the incumbents and quickly got to work on the important issues like passing resolutions on Common Core, carrying guns on campus, limiting speaker participation at meetings, and increasing rigor. Oh, I almost forgot, the person initially chosen to be chair of the school board had to resign for his role in marketing a bottle opener modeled after a woman’s posterior. I think it’s safe to say the ground was more than fertile for the growing of insanity.
On June 26, 2014, or thereabouts, a group called Williamson Strong sprung up. They were a parent group who valued the public education system they had and wanted to preserve it. They figured the best way to do so was to advocate for people to vote and, hopefully, vote for people who supported the policies favored by Williamson Strong. They were not a PAC or even a non-profit. In fact, they didn’t even have a treasurer. They were just a parent group wanting to support the school system that was supporting their children. This led to a costly mistake because they didn’t register as an official group.
Where or what they were supposed to do officially is a bit of mystery to me. I’ve talked to a number of different people and all had different recommendations. Some say they should have registered as a non-profit. Others say as a 501c4, or is it a 501C3, or maybe it’s a PAC. Truth is, nobody is sure, and the rules are quite vague. Laws are written to protect the election process from skilled operators, not concerned parents. As such, it creates a lot of room for error with very serious consequences.
It didn’t take long to ruffle some feathers in the land of the red. A conservative blog wrote a piece trying to immediately discredit WS, though they’d only been in existence for a month. I’m always a big fan of the hit pieces that use phrases like “believed to be.” Apparently, you are also not supposed to be able to design a slick website either, unless you have union backing or a 12-year-old in the house. Interestingly enough, this hit piece advised readers to “hold on to their wallet,” yet nowhere on the WS site is there a place to donate money. But don’t think things slow down there – apparently Victoria Jackson had one more Saturday Night Live skit in her, as she was willing to offer her opinion on what was going on. I’ll let you read about it and make your own jokes.
If it was Jackson who wore the mask of comedy, it was newly-elected board member Susan Curlee who donned the mask of tragedy. She filed an open records request that included all correspondence between Superintendent Looney and the private citizens who made up the leadership of Williamson Strong. Curlee claimed they were unfairly targeting her as an agent working for privatization, even though Americans for Prosperity had put out an informational flier with a high resolution picture of her and she was on record supporting vouchers. She also accused members of Williamson Strong of harassing her family. In an effort to clear the air and clarify their objectives, WS published an open letter to Ms. Curlee. Apparently, it wasn’t enough because in December 2014, Curlees filed ethics charges. The verdict came down this week.
The Registry of Election Finance voted to fine Williamson Strong a total of 5K for failure to register as a PAC and failure to file campaign expenditures. That’s right – an organization that doesn’t have a treasurer nor a fundraising mechanism was fined for not declaring themselves a PAC. Either they are the worst PAC ever or there is something a little skewered here.
Now just like I’m not a teacher, I’m also not a lawyer. But as it’s been explained to me, in order to be considered a PAC, you have expend money to support a candidate. If I don’t have a treasurer or a fundraising mechanism, how am I going to extend monies to a candidate? That’s the part that is completely baffling and troubling to me and other parent activists in the state.
If you extend this ruling out, then any time you have two people get together and offer free cookies to educate the public about a certain candidate, you could be considered a PAC. A couple riding in a car with a bumper sticker for a candidate on their car could be considered a PAC. There is supposedly a threshold of $250 that can be spent, but that was ignored in this case. So what’s to lead an activist to think it won’t be ignored in the future?
It is often pointed out that the most significant indicator of student success is parental involvement. Democracy itself is based on the principle of the citizen activist. This ruling has the potential to limit people from engaging in either role. This negative engagement between the newly elected board members and Williamson Strong may be coming from a place of personalities, but it setting a precedent that has the potential to limit parental involvement by making parents reticent to get involved if the result of failing to navigate a complex set of rules means potential financial punishment. Some may find this as it should be, however citizens are not attorneys and should not be expected to engage one in order to participate in the governing process.
The threshold on the average citizen should be higher than that on an elected official, who by their pursuit of elected office should be expected to be more versed in the regulatory aspects of the process. I would also argue that an elected official should seek to help constituents navigate the system, not seek to punish them for expressing views that run counter to their own. It’s almost the American way to be misinformed and to hurl accusations at politicians based on the opinions borne from this misinformation. Just ask George Bush and Barack Obama. It’s not the way it should be, but it’s up to elected officials to counter these arguments through their words and deeds, not litigation. In short, they should be inviting citizens to participate, not raising the bar to curtail it.
This past week, I’ve spent a fair amount of time talking to people in Williamson County about these events. What emerges is a convoluted picture that seems to have as much to do with past politics as it does with the current issues. Much of it also seems to be tied to personalities as much as policies. That should not be a surprise to anyone who has been involved with politics. It would take King Solomon to weed through all that has transpired and assign accountability. That’s a task well above my pay grade and not really the point I’m looking to make.
What is important here is to recognize and possibly prevent the use of personal issues to circumvent the democratic process. Parents should absolutely have the right to band together and champion issues they deem important. They should have the right to educate the public without fear of retribution. I obviously don’t endorse slander, but politicians should understand that reaping the benefits of certain entities also means suffering the disadvantages. To argue that there are not outside forces seeking to influence our democratic society through their financial injection, on both sides of the aisle, is either naïve or willfully ignorant.
Parents should not have to go through a cryptic bureaucracy to get involved in policy making that directly affects their children, unless they are actively raising money and financially supporting candidates at a reasonable threshold. Purchasing a domain name, making a records request, and holding a meeting should not qualify as meeting that threshold. Education policy conversations are ones that need to be held by all, not just those who aren’t afraid of the financial risk or are capable of deciphering complex regulatory language. Our representatives need to be leaders of all their constituents and not just the ones who share their views. Ms. Curlee and her supporters may feel like they’ve won a victory this week. Maybe they have in the short term, but at what cost in the long run?
UPDATED on 5/19: So I couldn’t resist, I had to add an up date. If you look above you’ll see where I mentioned an elected official carrying a gun on campus. I should correct my self, it was not a school board member but county commissioner Barbara Sturgeon. What struck me most about this whole incident was the lack of any kind of remorse for carrying a gun on campus. Her tone was immediately defensive and there was never a statement of “Hey my bad, should have left it at home.”
Superintendent Mike Looney took exception to someone carrying a fire arm on campus and sent her a letter notifying her that she would not be permitted on campus with out his written permission. When the superintendent suspended her privileges she immediately filed suit. She and her attorney apparently felt that this was about politics and not that she CARRIED A GUN ON CAMPUS. The suspension was lifted but the lawsuit continues. Today the Williamson County School Board asked for an additional 30k because this lawsuit could cost upwards of 60K. Think about what our poorer districts could do with 60K. You can’t make these things up.
UPDATE 2 on 5/19: Yes you can’t just make stuff up. WilliamsonStrong put out an update today on what was heard by the commision in their case. It’d all be good for a chuckle if it wasn’t so damned serious. Here’s my favorite part though, it comes from Ms. Curlee’s testimony, “Talking points from other locations around the country, especially with regard to other candidates, seem to be consistent. So things like privatization, outside big money coming from out of state, supposed to be nonpartisan, these are just stepping stones for other things, um, they all claim to be grassroots but then again there seems to be a template that’s being replicated.”
Once again people assume they are the only ones with access to the internet. All you have to do is a Google search and you’ll discover that these ARE the things that are transpiring across the country. Read my blog posts and you’ll see it. Trust me, I get no union funding. So if there is a template it’s one established by others. I encourage you to read the rest so you can get an idea of what we as parents potentially face.