Back in June, I wrote how the Nashville school board race was shaping up to be the equivalent of a Michael Bay summer blockbuster. We were going to have big explosions, bad dialogue, and lots of pretty people, but not a lot of substance. Little did I realize, though, that Stand for Children’s Dan O’Donnell was determined to play the role of Harvey Weinstein. But I guess somebody had to pay for the spectacle here, and Stand for Children has certainly written the check.
State financial disclosures were due yesterday, and they revealed that just since the beginning of July, Stand for Children has invested over $700K in campaigns across the state of Tennessee. According to The Tennessean’s reporting, SFC has spent over $200k in support of the 4 charter-friendly candidates in Nashville’s school board race. That includes roughly $55K just for mailers for each candidate and another $2K for digital marketing. Adding in donations from the Chamber of Commerce and other charter supporters, it adds up to roughly $140K spent against each of the incumbents, Will Pinkston, Jill Speering, Amy Frogge, and newcomer Christiane Buggs. If those numbers don’t offend you, let me put it in perspective.
$140k is no small chunk of change. First, let’s give everybody a $50k ceiling to run each of their four campaigns, generous I think, which would leave $90k leftover per district. $90k would be enough for three extra teacher assistants per district. Say a laptop runs $500, then $90k would be enough for 3,615 computers per district. $90k would be enough for an additional two school nurses per district. $90k would pay for two additional EL-certified teachers per district to work with English language learners. I could list alternatives all day, but instead Stand for Children is taking that money and using it for a barrage of misleading mailers.
A recent article in Nashville Scene says the amount given by SFC on the four school board races is actually over 230 thousand dollars. So what has SFC gotten for their $230k? Well, they got a longstanding Nashville non-profit in hot water, as it was revealed that SFC hasn’t been just spending money to influence but also collaborating with the charter community to funnel even more resources to the candidates they were supporting. By the way, that’s illegal.
They’ve also gotten a candidate in trouble, as District 9 candidate Thom Druffel has admitted that he met with SFC head Dan O’Donnell a few days ago to talk strategy. “I think we were trying to detail for the last 10 days what we were going to do and nothing more than that,” Druffel said. That would be another violation. Since it is one day after the blackout period and candidates are prohibited from interacting with PAC’s. No reason for concern though, O’Donell wasn’t working that day. He had taken the day off, so it’s all good. Well except that it’s still potentially illegal. As attorney Gerard Stranch, who has worked on campaign finance law says, “From my experience this not only looks bad, it is bad and it shouldn’t have happened.”
Last weekend, MNEA, the local teacher’s association, sent out a flier that mistakenly defined District 5 candidate Christiane Buggs as an incumbent. The error was most likely the result of a file merge at the printer. Stand for Children and their supporters quickly jumped on Buggs to immediately call for a retraction of the flier. But for her to do so would have been an election finance regulation violation since the flier did not come from her and a candidate cannot coordinate with a PAC . Unfortunately for them, Buggs was educated enough not to fall for it, and instead, waited until Monday to issue a well-worded response for a situation she had nothing to do with. Yep, I think it’s safe to say that a copy of “Election Campaign Finance Law for Dummies” did not came with that $230k.
Turns out that Stand for Children shouldn’t have been so quick to jump on Buggs.
It turns out that $230k doesn’t buy a spell check either. A recent flyer directed at school board member Amy Frogge included misspellings of both “Nashville” and her challenger’s name. How ironic is it that SFC doesn’t even know how to properly spell the name of the candidate they are supporting? I mean you can’t make this stuff up and it probably should be a standard, that if you can’t spell the city, you can’t run an attack ad.
The best part of all this has been the variety of responses we’ve seen from SFC’s representatives. Ringleader Dan O’Donnell, when asked about the money by Nashville Scene, said “he was not responsible for the spending but would put the Scene in contact with Krista Spurgin, who works for Stand for Children’s independent expenditure committee and is listed as part of Stand for Children’s national staff.” Apparently there are two separate entities: Stand for Children Tennessee’s PAC has been active in this state for a long time, advocating for expanded pre-K as well as charter schools. But according to what O’Donnell told the Scene, “the Independent Expenditure Committee is run by ‘someone else entirely’ and ‘I found out about the disclosures when you did.’” O’Donnell goes on to say, “These are incredibly important school board races on the most important issue in Nashville and advocacy groups are going to advocate in the best way that they know how. There’s nothing unusual about having a political action committee and an independent expenditure campaign.”
In digesting this canard, please note both the PAC and the “Independent Expenditure Committee” share the same address. Is O’Donnell, the director of SFC Tennessee, seriously saying he doesn’t know the goings-on in his own office? And what about the responses of the SFC-endorsed candidates? According to the Scene, District 5 candidate Miranda Christy claims, “I don’t even know who runs that part of Stand, so I have no control over that part of it or even any say. I wish I did, but legally I know that that’s the rule and I don’t even know who I would contact.” Jane Meneely, District 3 candidate says, “I earned the endorsement from Stand for Children’s parent endorsement committee. I received contributions from their PAC. I have had no interactions at all with their independent expenditure campaign.” District 7 candidate Jackson Miller echoes the others by claiming there’s been no coordination with SFC. Interesting side note: Up until July 1, Miller had raised $90k. But this last month, he’s only raised $8k, with $6k of it being a PAC check from SFC. It seems if you take the Stand money and the rich benefactor money out, Miller becomes just an ordinary first time candidate fund raiser. Same holds true for Christy, Meneely, and Druffel. Whatever they are saying, something just seems a little fishy. With that much cash in play, making that big a difference, you’d think that somebody would have noticed.
Furthermore, despite the emails that clearly show them working with Stand for Children, Marsha Edwards of the Martha O’Bryan Center continues to deny any inappropriate behavior. Though it is worth noting that their statement talks more about the good work they’ve done than it does about the wrongdoing. In all the years that I’ve been involved with education advocacy I don’t think I’ve ever once heard a charter operator just say, “We were wrong. We behaved badly and in the future we’ll work on doing it better.” Nope, it’s always because somebody is out to get them.
To believe any of these defenses, you would have to defy reality. If somebody spends $60k toward my goals, I would definitely take notice. What did these candidates think, that there was a special on mailers – buy 6, get 1 free? If these candidates honestly expect us to believe they were unaware of what SFC was doing, then they better go back and scrub those canvassing pictures where everyone in them was a charter school teacher or parent. Because a close look at who has been involved in their campaigns, whether it’s door knocking, phone calling, or writing checks, paints a different picture then the one the candidates are trying to present. Furthermore, their responses beg the question, if you can’t keep abreast of things as a candidate, how are you going to do it as a board member? Back in 2014, when StudentsFirst ran an ad that was offensive in support of then-candidate Mary Pierce, to her credit, Pierce noticed and asked that the offensive ads be stopped. “Our campaign strongly denounces this piece and asks that any other such communications cease immediately,” Pierce wrote in a Facebook post and it may not of stopped things entirely but it curtailed them.
Stand for Children continues to do the opposite though, they try and justify their behavior and spread half-truths. They refuse to go on camera and instead, like secret donors, send out anonymous statements that seem to suggest that somebody understands what both hands are doing. In their statement they talk about the investment of $216k being necessary because of the “array of powerful forces aggressively defending the indefensible status quo in Nashville”. Here’s a newsflash, SFC: those POWERFUL FORCES are a handful of school board members, a couple of unpaid bloggers, and some teachers and parents and they are not protecting the status quo, they are protecting their children from entities that promote policies that are harmful to them. Your statement is like King George III crying we had to attack the colonies because of the powerful forces aligned against us. This is ludicrous, and seeing that most, if not all, of the money comes from Portland, I have to ask, when did Nashville look westward to protect itself? And if we looked westward we’d see that Stand is trying to pull the same tactics in Washington state as they are here in Nashville.
Per teacher blogger Mercedes Schneider, On September 24th, 2014 the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the state’s law regarding charter schools was unconstitutional because it depended upon funding meant for the state’s common schools. The Court upheld its opinion in November 2015. The author of the ruling is WA Supreme Court Justice Barbara Madsen, who happens to be up for reelection in 2016. Stand is bringing the checkbook to make sure she doesn’t get re-elected. Her opponent is Greg Zemple who favors charter schools. Zempel stated that he is running because the state supreme court is “unpredictable.” He said, “[The court is] highly politicized and they are not deferential to other branches of the government or citizens.” Zempel said that he had decided to challenge Chief Justice Madsen rather than a justice who had been on the court for less time because the chief justice is “more responsible” for the tone of the court.
Sound familiar Nashville residents? Madsen has raised roughly 30k and Zemple 40k but Zemple has the backing of Washington’s Stand for Children’s Independent Expenditure Committee. They’ve already spent $116k and have raised over $700K. Starting to sound real familiar now isn’t it Nashville? One time is an incident. Repeat an incident and you have a pattern of behavior. That’s what we have here and it’s one that should concern all of us.
Stand for Children has always been a little controversial, so there is lure to write this off as more of the same old same old argument. That would be a mistake. Over the last five years SFC has morphed into an organization that many of its early members barely recognize. Read the words that former Nashville member Bonnie Speer wrote in a recent Facebook post, “There was a time when I was the longest member of the Nashville Chapter of Stand for Children. SFC was a grass roots organization that advocated for local issues chosen by local members. It saddens me that it has strayed so far from its local roots. I have had nothing to do with SFC for several years and encourage anyone who still supports SFC to rethink his/her position. They no longer care or support what is best for children in our community.”
Election day is August 4th. Early voting turnout has been low so far. The question now becomes will SFC’s behavior be rewarded next Thursday? Or will Nashville send a message that our elections are not for sale, and will we not allow outside forces to dictate what our school board looks like? Recently the Reverend William Barber addressed the Democratic National Conference. He challenged attendees, calling for them to,”Vote together. Organize together. Fight for the heart of this nation.” He meant those words to galvanize voters to the polls in November. But in Nashville, August is every bit as important and the fight has to begin in each community.