In the last push before the election Thursday, school board candidates and supporters have spent more than $160,000 — more than double the total spent for the four races a month ago.
And more than 80 percent of that spending is from two candidates: incumbent Billy Orgel in District 8 that includes much of East Memphis, and Michelle Robinson McKissack, who is challenging incumbent Chris Caldwell in District 1, which includes downtown.
Total reported spending to govern Shelby County Schools adds up to about $233,000, almost a quarter of it coming from TennesseeCAN, a Nashville-based education advocacy organization. With 15 people vying for four seats, competition has intensified compared to two years ago when five seats were up for election but only one was contested.
McKissack was supported with almost $30,000 in advertising, canvassing and phone calls this month from TennesseeCAN. That is in addition to $26,000 in campaign support the organization’s political action committee gave her last month. TennesseeCAN has sought to expand charter schools, and has backed vouchers that would allow state money to pay for private school tuition, but McKissack has said she does does not support vouchers. She also spent another $30,000 on a political consultant.
Orgel, who is seeking his third term on the school board, spent about $73,000 for campaign management by Caissa Public Strategy.
Campaign finance disclosures also revealed some new support for candidates.
The city’s two teacher organizations are rooting for incumbents Shante Avant, Chris Caldwell, Mike Kernell, and Orgel. The one endorsement from a teaching organization for a non-incumbent is to retired teacher Jerry Cunningham, the lone candidate running against incumbent Orgel. Cunningham was supported by the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association with a $550 contribution. He stands out among candidates as critical of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. The school board voted last summer to give Hopson a raise and extend his contract early in the midst of a grade changing scandal that is still being investigated.
Pitt Hyde, the owner of AutoZone and founder of Hyde Family Foundation, and his wife, Barbara Hyde, contributed $1,000 each to Orgel. (The Hydes, who have heavily backed local education initiatives, also each gave $1,500 to McKissack last month.) McKissack attracted a $100 donation from Tomeka Hart, a former Memphis school board member who now works for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Washington, D.C., the same foundation that gave $90 million to Memphis City Schools in 2009 to overhaul how teachers are evaluated and trained. (Gates and Hyde foundations are also Chalkbeat funders.)
The political action committee representing Blue Cross Blue Shield, a health insurance company, backed all of the incumbents with $750 each. School board member Kevin Woods became the Memphis president for the insurance company in February. That follows the pattern during this election of board members backing their fellow incumbents.
Incumbent Mike Kernell had previously spent and received less than $1,000. But this month, he got $2,900 more in donations and spent $2,500 for yard signs, a fundraiser, and graphics, according to his campaign finance disclosure. One of his three challengers, Kori Hamner, a former Shelby County Schools teacher and teacher coach, has garnered support from national organizations tied to Teach for America and charter expansion in New York. She has spent nearly $24,000. Another challenger, Rhonnie Brewer, a business owner, has spent about $11,500. She received $300 each this month from county commissioner Eddie Jones and city councilman Edmund Ford Jr., who is also a Shelby County Schools teacher.
Nearly half of candidates did not file campaign finance disclosure forms that were due to the state last week. Those candidates are: Shante Avant, Jerry Cunningham, Joyce Dorse-Coleman, Roderic Ford, Minnie Hunter, Percy Hunter, and Michael Scruggs. Avant said she plans to turn hers in this week.
Election Day is Thursday Aug. 2. To read more about school board candidate positions on local education, check out Chalkbeat’s election guide.