GOP influence nets mixed results

Updated to reflect unofficial final vote totals released Wednesday by the Douglas County Clerk’s Office.

In two counties where the Republican Party actively supported school board candidates, that influence apparently paid off in Douglas County but not in Jefferson County, where the GOP-backed slate lost.

Candidate Lesley Dahlkemper, pictured at a debate, led in Jeffco returns throughout the night against the GOP-backed Jim Powers.

This year marked the Jeffco GOP’s first foray into non-partisan school board races in recent memory – but it didn’t pay off in seats on the board governing the state’s largest school district.

A Republican election party at a Lakewood restaurant was subdued Tuesday night, with most folks heading home by 9 pm.

Candidate Preston Branaugh, who campaigned as one of “the dads” slate, said he was disappointed in the outcome and credited his defeat to being outspent.

“Having funds was a challenge for us,” Branaugh said.

Fellow GOP-backed candidate Jim Powers said the election shows “the union still controls the school board.”

Jeffco candidate Jill Fellman, shown at a debate, led her opponent, GOP-backed Preston Branaugh, through the evening.

The two were opposed by Jill Fellman, a former Jeffco teacher and administrator, and Lesley Dahlkemper, who had previously led a tax campaign for the district. Fellman and Dahlkemper registered their campaigns in April and quickly went to work, including soliciting contributions to outraise their opponents, who didn’t file campaign paperwork until August.

Fellman said she was surprised by the margin of victory and she believes a backlash against efforts to make the race partisan may have played a role.

“I had bipartisan support,” Fellman said from an election party that was still going strong at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday. “We had a positive message and we stuck to it: that we wanted to really promote teaching and learning, and students come first. When it started getting partisan, we said ‘No, we have a path and we’ll stay on it. This is not about a Republican or Democratic way to educate children.’ ”

By 9:45 p.m. Tuesday, Dahlkemper was nearing exhaustion, particularly after six hours of staffing phone banks earlier in the day. But she was giddy with joy over the election results.

Vote tallies
  • See the numbers of votes for each school board candidate in Douglas and Jefferson counties

“We felt Jeffco sent a strong message,” she said from her home, where supporters had gathered. “It came through loud and clear in tonight’s margins.”

The Jefferson County Education Association issued a press release titled “Jeffco elects two tough moms to school board.”

“Tonight’s results show that Jefferson County isn’t looking for vouchers or radical changes,” said JCEA President Kerrie Dallman. “They are looking for qualified leadership and fiscal acumen to see Jeffco through these tough fiscal times.”

The roles of the Republican Party and the teachers union, as well as vouchers, were themes throughout the campaigns in both Jefferson and Douglas counties.

Craig Richardson

Douglas County’s GOP party became active in school board races in 2009 and elected a four-member majority. Then the board, 18 months later, approved the state’s first district-run voucher pilot.

This year’s election was seen by many as a referendum on vouchers, with a pro-voucher candidate squaring off against anti-voucher challengers in each of three races. And in each race, the pro-voucher – and GOP-endorsed – candidate won.

“I think it’s a huge mandate for parental choice in public education,” said Dougco School Board President John Carson, who was elected as part of the 2009 GOP slate. “It’s a clean sweep, all three of our reform candidates won and they won decisively.”

The margin was closest between incumbent Justin Williams and challenger Susan McMahon, one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed to stop the district’s voucher pilot. The lawsuit was successful, with a Denver judge finding the pilot unconstitutional. The Dougco board is appealing that ruling.

Kevin Larsen

“I am confident but you never know,” Williams said early in the evening, as he watched results at a GOP party held at a restaurant near the Park Meadows Mall. “I think, considering the will of the community, we’ll win.”

In the two other Dougco board races, candidate Kevin Larsen defeated Gail Frances while incumbent Craig Richardson defeated challengers Susan Meek and Kevin Reilly.

The campaigns of the GOP slates in both counties were interwined as EdNews revealed last week when a email from Dougco’s Republican Party chair surfaced. In it, Mark Baisley thanks supporters and tells them they’ll be calling into Jeffco on behalf of GOP candidates there through Election Day.

Baisley defended the strategy, saying, ” where we can help out our neighbors, yeah, we will do so.”

Tuesday night, at Dougco’s GOP party, Baisley had this to say to those who complained about the effort: Get used to it.

Justin Williams

“You can count on us doing that next year with the state senate,” he said. “Our nominees will sail through in Douglas County without even breathing hard. We have amassed an army of volunteers that we will unleash on the entire state to win this state for conservatism.”

But the Jeffco school board candidates who were the target of that Dougco GOP effort said it smacked of desperation.

“It’s really kind of sad that our opponents are reaching out to Douglas County to get people to call into Jefferson County,” Fellman said.

The GOP is a formidable force in Douglas County where, as of Sept. 30, 51 percent of active voters were registered Republican compared to 21 percent Democrat and 28 percent unaffiliated. Dougco school board members represent a geographic area but they are elected countywide.

But Jeffco is a different story, with Republican voters less dominant than in Dougco.

Figures from the secretary of state’s office show, as of Sept. 30, 37 percent of Jeffco’s active voters are registered as Republicans compared to 32 percent Democrats and 30 percent unaffiliated. While school board members represent geographic areas, they are elected countywide.

Dahlkemper said that from the beginning, her campaign steering committee reflected the community — parents, seniors, business leaders, retired educators. A former Republican lawmaker, Norma Anderson, co-chaired the committee with a former Democratic lawmaker, Moe Keller.

“I brought together folks who didn’t always see eye to eye, who sometimes challenged my own thinking,” she said.

By the numbers: Vote tallies for candidates in Douglas and Jefferson counties

DOUGLAS COUNTY – DISTRICT A – 53,686 total votes

  • Kevin Reilly – 8,686 votes – 16%
  • Susan Meek – 20,498 votes – 38%
  • Craig Richardson – 24,502 votes – 46%

DOUGLAS COUNTY – DISTRICT C – 52,862 total votes

  • Gail Frances – 22,941 votes – 43%
  • Kevin Larsen – 29,921 votes – 57%

DOUGLAS COUNTY – DISTRICT F – 53,129 total votes

  • Susan McMahon – 25,942 votes – 48%
  • Justin Williams – 27,187 votes – 52%

* * * * *

JEFFERSON COUNTY – DISTRICT 3 – 116,108 total votes

  • Preston Branaugh – 45,508 votes – 39%
  • Jill Fellman – 70,600 votes – 61%

JEFFERSON COUNTY – DISTRICT 4 – 115,097 total votes

  • Lesley Dahlkemper – 64,583 votes – 56%
  • Jim Powers – 50,514 votes – 44%

Sources: Douglas County results are unofficial final results reported by the Douglas County Clerk’s Office at 4:44 p.m. Wednesday; Jefferson County results are unofficial final results reported by the Jefferson County Clerk’s Office at 1:36 a.m. Wednesday.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede