We kid. Perhaps you missed it. County Commissioner Todd Kaestner said we (parents) were using you (parents) as pawns. Can you feel it?
It’s been quite a year since the new board was sworn in on September 15, 2014. The big kahuna: parents (and not a few community members) are now paying attention to what’s going on with our school board. Thousands are keeping up with school board news, and hundreds of you have attended meetings and emailed your school board reps and your county commissioners. What a difference a year makes! Well done.
We know, as parents and PTO members, that an engaged community is part of what makes each individual school work. The same is true for the school system as a whole. Community and parent engagement is a good thing. Full stop.
Sadly, we heard from Commissioner Kaestner a reprise of arguments we have heard from several school board members: parent engagement is a problem. It is a threat to our democracy rather than a manifestation of it. Williamson Strong itself is portrayed not as a handful of engaged parents running a Facebook page for parents to inform and engage other parents but instead as a “special interest” (that was actually County Commissioner Brandon Ryan’s word), “stripping” parents’ rights and also, somehow, using parents as pawns.
We were surprised and saddened to hear this from Kaestner, but the content was very much the same old song we’ve heard all year from a few others. Asking questions is bullying and writing your County Commissioner is “mayhem.” Attending a school board meeting makes you part of a mob. Saying something negative about your elected officials? Yowza, that can get you a full-on taxpayer-funded investigation.
Many, many more people are paying attention than were a year ago or fifteen months ago, and we get asked all the time for a primer on the election and the last year. We finally pulled one together.
If you want more info on any of these topics, there are links in the piece and you can also search Williamson Strong using keywords. As always, there are other sources of news and we encourage you to get your info from multiple sources.
The Year in Review Part 1 – The Takeover (That’s 912 TN President J. Lee Douglas’s word, not ours)
Keep in mind
The Williamson County school board elections are nonpartisan.
Still, everybody on the board in 2014 – and everyone who ran – identified as a Republican. Everybody.
With some exceptions, school board races are generally sleepy, often uncontested, low-budget affairs in early August.
Sleeeeeepy, like school board elections in previous years
But there was and is a group of core activists – maybe a few dozen? — who have skirmished with the district and especially with Superintendent Mike Looney going as far back as 2010 over issues such as rezoning, the naming of school breaks on the calendar, and textbooks. There is a lot of crossover between this group, local anti-Islamic activists, and a group called the 912 Project. Most of these activists do NOT have kids in public school.
A proxy war backstory?
In 2014, Williamson County Schools board member Cherie Hammond challenged Glen Casada in the Republican primary for the District 63 state house seat Casada had held since 2001. Hammond was an ally of Looney’s, and Looney personally contributed to her campaign. Casada, who had not been visibly involved in previous school board elections, hosted fundraising kickoff parties for Bartholomew, Curlee, Burgos, and Emerson and endorsed Cash. District 65 State Rep. Jeremy Durham contributed a whopping $1000 to Susan Curlee’s campaign and hosted her kickoff party.
Kent Davis was also a major player. Davis, who died in June of this year, was a major donor in state politics and a former advisor at the Mackinac Institute, a pro-privatization advocacy group in Michigan. Davis funded Cash, Burgos, Emerson, and Curlee, set up coordination meetings, and sent multiple campaign emails (and received some too, including from Curlee and Burgos) during the summer of 2014. More than half a dozen of these email exchanges had the title “SCHOOL ELECTIONS: IT IS ALL ABOUT DR. LOONEY.” Davis noted that Looney’s “stated opposition” to Casada was a problem.
Spring 2014: Candidates enter the race
Susan Curlee, an FSSD parent and internet activist (@isaidknow) with nearly 5000 Twitter followers including Ted Cruz, Darrell Issa and Marsha Blackburn, picked up papers in March 2014. Her major focus on Twitter was Benghazi, gun rights, and presidential politics. Curlee’s campaign website says she is “an active member of the PTO and the Student Advisory Council at Freedom Intermediate.” She has lived in Franklin since 2000.
Candy Emerson is a former WCS kindergarten teacher with three grown children who all graduated from Williamson County Schools.
“I think one of the most exciting things for me is to be a part of a group, a coalition of women and Dan Cash who is also a very strong Christian because there are six of us running for the school board.” – 6/12/14 kickoff party video
Beth Burgos, Susan Curlee, and Candy Emerson with Victoria Jackson
Beth Burgos is a family physician whose children recently graduated from private, Christian Franklin Classical School. Burgos is from Michigan and has lived in Franklin for 20 years.
Burgos’ kickoff party at the home of 912 TN President J. Lee Douglas
(Attendees include Julie West, Debbie Deaver, Chuck Shelton, Raymond Baker, Kevin Kookogey, Kathy Danner, Cyndi Miller, Jean Barwick, Candy Emerson, Paul Bartholomew…and who is that hiding in the back room?)
Burgos is close with 912 Project TN founder J. Lee Douglas. Burgos and Emerson have both been very active since 2013 in fights over textbooks, claiming certain books are un-American, pro-Islamic, anti-capitalist, or sexually inappropriate.
Beth Burgos with J. Lee Douglas and his wife Elizabeth McClurg
Dan Cash is a retired GM employee and a longtime UAW member. He is originally from Michigan but has lived in Franklin for more than 20 years. Cash is endorsed by State Rep. Glen Casada.
Jay Galbreath and Paul Bartholomew have no opposition.
All these candidates run against the Common Core standards, which the state legislature voted to adopt in 2010 (and has since voted to repeal). Local school boards have no official role, but the candidates state that they want the local board to do more against the Common Core State Standards.
April and May 2014: Rumblings that this isn’t an ordinary election…
912 Project President J. Lee Douglas, referring to our school board and the county commission, writes: “This is our best year to take over these local elected bodies.” The challengers (except Dan Cash and Melody Morris) are all member of the TN chapter of the 912 Project, a national organization started by Glenn Beck.
J. Lee Douglas at School Board Meeting Public Comment 1/20/15
Kathy Danner, District 4 County Commissioner, discloses that there is a “team effort” coordinated by local community organizer Chuck Shelton and political consultant and Franklin Alderman Beverly Burger (among others) to “vet” candidates. Danner later hosts campaign kickoff parties for Curlee and Emerson.
A handful of parents start paying attention to local school board issues and launch the Williamson Strong Facebook page to make it easier for other parents to do the same. Williamson Strong sends out candidate surveys to all those running, and posts links to all candidates with Facebook pages and websites. Every challenger (except for Melody Morris) refuses to send in a survey.
Within three weeks after Williamson Strong’s Facebook page launch, Susan Curlee sends an email to Kent Davis, privatization advocate and major PAC donor to all the challenger candidates, who was also organizing and coordinating messages for the campaigns. Curlee says Williamson Strong must be “exposed” given one founder’s personal support of Cherie Hammond and the fact that Dr. Looney had “liked” the page, among other reasons.
6/19 – Kent Davis lets challengers and their supporters know that they all need to “pool [their] resources and elect Susan Curlee, Beth Burgos, Candy Emerson, and Dan Cash.” He says the County GOP has agreed to make their headquarters available “as a communications resource and to use as a place to gather.” [Note: This is a nonpartisan election.]
7/10 – Franklin Clapham Group hosts candidate forum. The forum is moderated by Chris Burger, Franklin Alderman and campaign consultant Bev Burger’s son. Burgos, Curlee, Galbreath, Bartholomew, Cash, and Emerson all raise their hands to indicate they support school vouchers in Williamson County. (Note: After the election, Galbreath, Burgos, and Emerson change their position, saying they will not support vouchers for Williamson County.)
7/14 – Hit pieces on Williamson Strong parents released on multiple websites preview the year to come. Parents associated with Williamson Strong are called “brutal” “thugs” and “snakes.”
7/15 – Kent Davis sends an email to 24 recipients (including all six new board members-to-be) discussing a strategy for the removal of Superintendent Mike Looney. Davis says that the new board—after elected—should “make the case he (Looney) is a top-down micromanager who does not trust his principals, managers and others.” Davis writes that he would “send materials that outline the case.” Also this: “The time for any ugly stuff should be done privately and kept out of the press … A win for WCS and us will be for him to move on.” This email is leaked to and covered by the Tennessean on 7/20.
7/21 – While challengers did not overtly run on wanting new executive leadership for the county, one Burgos supporter reports on Facebook that Dr. Burgos made it clear that she wanted to replace Dr. Looney.
7/21 – Leaflets “Paid for by Williamson Co. Friends” are illegally placed in mailboxes in at least one Franklin neighborhood, Liberty Hills. Susan Curlee was running against incumbent Vicki Vogt.
7/24 – Kent Davis discusses coordinated anti-Common Core ads for all four. Davis sends an email to candidates Burgos, Cash, Curlee, and Emerson. Other recipients include Jay Galbreath and PJ Mezera, as well as State Representatives Casada and Durham and Commissioners Danner, Lawrence and Sturgeon. Davis discusses a proposal for ads for all four candidates and says the ads should be “focused on helping the candidates and should ignore the opponents.” Davis also notes that pictures are “dynamite” and the “fact that there are four is also dynamite.” He also encourages the ads to focus on Common Core and against federal interference. “Funding would be the least of the issues, ” he says, and goes on to say that he would “defer to whoever believes we can put together an effective ad on short notice.”
7/24 – Burgos, Curlee, Emerson and Cash hold a press statement at Centennial High School. The press contact is Franklin Alderman Bev Burger (using the name Elka Ahearn).
The prepared statement read by Beth Burgos states that “not one of us has remotely entertained or expressed the desire to replace our superintendent Dr. Looney.” Burgos said, “We have not made any of our campaigns political or partisan. BUT … a fair election process has been ROBBED FROM US by highly partisan groups and individuals…”
Burgos also says, “We find it disturbing that special interest groups would stoop to ANY measure to protect the status quo.” The candidates refuse to answer questions.
7/24/14 Press Statement
8/5-6 – Identical, glossy sets of three Americans for Prosperity mailers are sent to households in the four contested districts in the days right before the election. AFP brags that it spent $500,000 in Tennessee in the six weeks prior to the August elections and calls the new WCS board a major victory. The mailers include high-resolution photos of the candidates (not available off the internet) and their phone numbers, instructing voters to “thank” the candidates. AFP is not a registered PAC.
The mailers make the case that the candidates are facing off against President Obama.
“Why is our school board letting Obama run Williamson Co. schools?” “Should Obama have even more control over our schools?” “Williamson County Schools have been targeted by the Obama administration to force us to implement Common Core.”
8/7 – The challengers sweep the election. Paul Bartholomew (District 4) and Jay Galbreath (District 6) are elected unopposed.
Beth Burgos wins by 177 votes.
Dan Cash wins by 505 votes
Susan Curlee wins by 212 votes
Candy Emerson wins by 295 votes
Voter turnout is about 10% of registered voters in the four contested districts. About 3% of Williamson County registered voters cast votes for the four successful challengers with opposition– that is 4700 votes out of 137,000 registered voters.
“Everybody won.” – Franklin Alderman Bev Burger “In the face of awful behavior we showed we can rise above it.” – Susan Curlee “I am very thankful for the many, many Christian patriots who supported us on this venture. I’m excited to get on the school board and get to work.” – Dan Cash “God had a plan.” – Candy Emerson, on election night “I believe that God called me to this position. We had so many Christians praying. Many parents want textbooks to reflect Christian values. We want to represent the voices that have spoken.” – Beth Burgos “While the school board race is considered to be a nonpartisan one, national conservative issues such as federal government overreach captured voters’ attention.” – Tennessean
That’s a (relatively) short version of what happened up until Election Day 2014. See The Year in Review Part 2 for a digest of information from September 2014 through September 2015.