A campaign mailer backing state Rep. Dawn White’s re-election contends she came to the rescue of Rutherford County school children when local school officials tried to spend tax money on private lobbyists.
But Rutherford County and Murfreesboro City schools haven’t hired private lobbyists, though they pay fees to the Tennessee School Boards Association, which provides a number of services to systems across the state.
The ad is paid for by the Tennessee Federation for Children PAC, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that favors allowing public funds to be used for vouchers allowing children to attend private schools.
The PAC also made a $1,500 contribution to White’s campaign in the second quarter of 2014, according to Tennessee Registry of Campaign Finance records. She spent $12,125 during the last quarter.
House Speaker Beth Harwell’s PAC gave her $1,500; AT&T Tennessee PAC contributed $2,000; and Haynes Bros. Lumber owner Terry Haynes kicked in $250, among many others.
White had $52,421 on hand at the beginning of the second quarter and netted $20,800 in contributions for the reporting period that ended June 30.
White faces Murfreesboro City Councilman Eddie Smotherman in the Republican primary for the 37th House District, representing residents from La Vergne, Smyrna, Walter Hill and northeast Murfreesboro.
The mailer states that White, a first-term representative, backed legislation (House Bill 2293) “that would allow county commissions and city councils to hold school boards accountable for spending taxpayer funds on private lobbyists.”
The bill, which narrowly failed in the House, would require school system funds spent on private lobbyists to be made a line item in their budget and give commissions and councils authority to approve or not.
White said this week after speaking with local school board members she found out that the county system does not hire any private lobbyists, though she said other systems do.
“We’re just trying to make government more transparent,” White said.
Rutherford County Schools Director Don Odom said the county system pays dues to the Tennessee School Boards Association, including $9,246 this fiscal year. Among other things, the association provides training to school board members, policy manuals and information, in addition to being an advocate for school boards. Murfreesboro City School Board has used TSBA for its director search, evaluations and meeting requirements of the Affordable Care Act.
Said Odom, “We support the right to attach to TSBA because of the training and services they offer to school board members.”
The director speculated that the group paying for the mailer opposes any public funds going toward TSBA because the association rejects spending taxpayer money for vouchers and charter schools.
Odom said the only system he knew of across the state that hired a private lobbyist in recent years was Williamson County Schools.
Still, White said she has no problem with the PAC sending out the mailer, because it is true. “I stand behind what I believe in and my record,” she said, but added she didn’t know about the item until it reached her mailbox.
A former Murfreesboro City Schools teacher, White said she favors “parent choice” for education, whether that means setting up vouchers or charter schools. Neither Rutherford County nor Murfreesboro City Schools offer vouchers – they haven’t been approved in Tennessee – and no local charter schools have been set up.
White said education reform was a major topic in the past session of the General Assembly and will be again in 2015-16. Fighting Common Core, a set of federal standards determining what children should know before graduating from high school, will be one of the main issues, she said.
“I don’t think the federal government should dictate what we should be teaching Tennessee children,” White said.
Tennessee teachers, parents and school boards should decide what children learn here, she said.
Smotherman, a first-term Murfreesboro City Councilman, said he hasn’t decided whether he supports vouchers or charter schools, but he said he would not base any decision in the state Legislature on campaign contributions from political action committees.
Contributions have been accepted only from a few individuals, he said. Smotherman reported $1,278 on hand at the end of the first quarter and a total of $3,398 at the end of June. His largest contribution, $1,000, came from John Floyd, owner of
Ole South Properties. He reported expenditures of $1,348.
Smotherman agreed with White’s contention that Common Core needs to be defeated, saying he opposes the “federalization” of the local school system.
Murfreesboro has the No. 2 school system in the state, he said, and just because other systems are struggling, the city should not be forced to enact rules that could hurt children’s education here.
Smotherman also pointed out that the state Legislature did not provide any funds for teacher pay increases this year, but Murfreesboro City Council did.
In addition, the council spent $5.2 million last year to provide computers for school children to help them prepare for new standardized tests. As it turned out, the system was misled on the need for the technology, he said, but it still felt the computers were necessary to enable students to prepare for “jobs of tomorrow.”
Smotherman, a former Nissan employee, small business owner and youth sports coach for 38 years, said his top issue on the campaign trail is planning for future growth.
Funding pulled from the Tennessee Department of Transportation needs to be renewed to start work on the widening of state Route 99 (New Salem Highway) and Thompson Lane, he said.
More local schools have to be built and teachers hired to prepare for the influx of children, along with more efforts to clamp down on crime to maintain Rutherford County’s quality of life, Smotherman said.
Balance must be found between property rights and municipal annexation. While bringing property owners into the city limits can benefit some property owners by offering them municipal services, it can work against others, he said.
“We need to make sure (cities) have the ability to grow in an appropriate way,” and avoid checkerboard annexation, Smotherman said.
Smotherman also said he is also working on legislation that would give people the right to carry guns on greenways because he believes gun-free zones work in favor of criminals.