Chamber of Commerce at work picking a Pulaski school board | Arkansas Blog

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Chamber of Commerce at work picking a Pulaski school board

Posted By on Sun, Nov 6, 2016 at 1:55 PM

PULASKI SCHOOL HQ: The LR Chamber of Comerce  will be the de facto seat of [power for the Pulaski County School District if its campaign contributions end up backing a majority of winners of Pulaski School Board seats.
  • PULASKI SCHOOL HQ: The LR Chamber of Comerce will be the de facto seat of [power for the Pulaski County School District if its campaign contributions end up backing a majority of winners of Pulaski School Board seats.

The Pulaski County Special School District will elect a school board for the first time Tuesday since being released from state control after years of fiscal distress.

The Little Rock business community means to make sure the right sort of board is elected — unfriendly to the teachers union, for example.

This business push might or might not make you nervous if you know the Little Rock business community — meaning the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and its leaders, plus the Walton-funded charter school lobbyists — led the state takeover of the Little Rock School District.

Campaign finance filings — not all complete at this point — paint the picture. Seven races are on the ballot. Two are uncontested. One contested race is a minority-heavy portion of southern Pulaski County for which no money raising has been reported.

The chamber if playing in four races in Maumelle, Sherwood (two) and western Little Rock. Four is a board majority.

Here's how it shakes out:

Zone 3: The anointed candidate is Linda Remele of Sherwood, who is opposed by Gloria Lawrence. Remele has raised $19,500. Of that $5,400 came from a couple of shadowy PACS — the Progress PAC and the Good Education in PCSSD PAC. I say shadowy because most of the money they spend is reported to come in unitemized cash contributions rather than from itemized \donors. Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jay Chesshir is an officer of both PACs, I'd speculate the money comes from a regular chamber collection of some sort, perhaps periodic antes from the 50 for the Future arm. Remele got another roughly $8,000 not from the good people in her Sherwood zone, but from prominent members of the Chamber of Commerce and other businessmen who live in Little Rock.

Zone 4: Here the chamber pick is Shelby Thomas of Sherwood, facing Cari Burgett Fetters and Leonard Smith. He reported $11,900 in contributions, $8,100 in the form of two $2,700 contributions from the Good Education PAC and one from the Progress PAC. He got Little Rock business supplements, too.

Zone 6: The chamber candidate is Eli Keller of Maumelle, facing Samuel Branch. Keller raised $18,400 including $5,400 total from the Progress and Good Education PACs and a bundle of $500 and $1,000 contributions from Little Rock business executives.

Zone 7: Brian Maune is the chamber's man in this race against Jim Joley and Dr. Julian Murray in western Little Rock. He got $2,700 each from the Progress and Good Education PAC and $2,700 more from the Arkansas Learns PAC. This PAC, according to its most recent report, is almost wholly funded by Arkansas Learns, a nonprofit organization headed by former chamber employee Gary Newton. It lobbies for charter schools and so-called "school choice." Arkansas Learns is primarily funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Newton wants to elect a school board majority that will vote for the Pulaski district to allow its students to transfer to other districts. Superintendent Jerry Guess has resisted that so far, in part because the district remains under federal court supervision in the desegregation case This does not make Guess entirely poison to everyone in the business community because he also ended the district's relationship with the unions of teachers and bus drivers, causing them to oppose some of the candidates the chamber is supporting. Guess also pleased Waltonites and conservative Republicans generally by shepherding the first school board election to a general election ballot. It is the big money belief that special school elections are too easily controlled by people most interested in the schools — meaning the people who work in them and their supporters and also parents of school children. In short, the conventional wisdom is that holding school elections on general election days makes tax increases less likely. (All those voters with no interest in schools.) A bigger vote also increases the cost of running, another felicitous development for the business community, which has money to help out.

When I say prominent business names appear often in these races I mean people like chamber stalwarts John Riggs, Gary Smith, Gus Vratsinas and others

The business community, of course, is free to assemble money and back the candidates of its choice. As are teacher and bus driver unions.

But here's the rub:. The teachers and bus driver organizations don't get taxpayer subsidies. Jay Chesshir and his pals at the chamber are lobbying for Issue 3, which would allow restoration of use of local tax money to subsidize the salaries of people like Chesshir, who lobbies for things like end of democratic control of the Little Rock School District, anti-union school board members in Pulaski County and, in next week's election, against medical marijuana.

It would be hard for me to support candidates whose corporate lobbyist backers expect me to subsidize them.

In short, whatever happens in the Pulaski County School District: VOTE NO ON ISSUE 3.

In addition to paying tax money to people like Chessir, the amendment would authorize unlimited borrowing by city, county and state government to benefit private business without a public vote. Unlimited borrowing to help school children? That wouldn't be prudent, this same crowd says.

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