After a tumultuous year for Jefferson County Public Schools, including a near takeover and new state education leadership, it appears the Bluegrass Fund is quiet in 2018 school board races.
The Bluegrass Fund, formed in 2012 by the real estate developer David Nicklies to act as an antidote to the local teachers union’s dominant influence in board elections, has not filed any reports listing contributions or expenditures this year. Since its creation, the group has spent hundreds of thousands across three rounds of board elections.
Kentuckians for Progress, another organization run by Nicklies, criticized the school board in three TV and radio ads before becoming dormant in August. KFP also has not filed election contributions this year, but doesn’t have to due to its status as a social welfare organization.
Jefferson County Teachers Association President Brent McKim said he was “somewhat” surprised the groups have been quiet this election cycle. “I would like to think that they’ve evolved to think … that we make pretty good endorsement decisions,” McKim said.
Nicklies did not respond to a request for comment.
Better Schools Kentucky, the political arm of JCTA, traditionally has the most heavy hand in local school board races. Its endorsement “carries a lot of weight,” McKim said earlier this year.
BSK typically has a war chest of over $1 million to support candidates, both locally and in state elections. In this year’s school board races, some of it went to billboards and yard signs for endorsed candidates instead of campaign donations. (McKim declined to share specifics of how the union PAC supports board candidates.)
Additionally, school board races have a small voter pool, with the county being split into seven districts and those districts being on a staggered election cycle. With such a small pool, teachers voting for the BSK-supported candidate and people voting for who teachers support can combine to be a lethal force.
The Bluegrass Fund hoped to challenge that power, with a small group of wealthy names like Nicklies, David Jones Sr., and Sandra Frazier spending thousands to support candidates with TV, radio and print advertising in elections in 2012, 2014 and 2016. Ads typically showed those candidates as being in favor of charter and neighborhood schools and against busing — even if that wasn’t the candidate’s actual stance.
For example, in 2012, the fund sent mailers suggesting former board member Chuck Haddaway wanted to move away from the district’s student assignment plan and end busing. In a forum, Haddaway said he was “fine” with the plan, according to WDRB.
While board members suggested the Bluegrass Fund was pushing for charter schools, Nicklies disagreed in the past, saying its focus was to improve how the district spends tax dollars. In 2012, the fund accepted a $8,000 donation from the Kentucky Coalition for Education Reform, a pro-charter group chaired by now-state education board chair Hal Heiner.
Since the group’s inception, the state passed a charter school law and has several charter advocates, including Heiner and education commissioner Wayne Lewis, in top positions influencing education policy across the state.
In 2012, the Fund spent $125,000 across two races. In 2014, $188,000 across three. In 2016, the Fund spent over $351,000 in a single race — its biggest amount thus far — to back Fritz Hollenbach against incumbent and eventual winner Chris Brady.
School board candidates tend to bring in little to no campaign funds on their own, making it difficult to fight against outside groups on their own. Only two candidates — James Craig and Corrie Shull — have reported campaign contributions, receiving around $12,000 and $15,000, respectively. Both, coincidentally, received this year’s BSK endorsement.
Waymen Eddings, who is running against Shull, said in an email he has raised less than $500. Those donations are not listed online.
In some races, BSK and the Bluegrass Fund endorsed the same candidates or chose not to endorse anyone in a certain district, McKim said. The two look for “very similar” things in candidates, and McKim said they’ve had “constructive” discussions about candidates in the past.
But in situations where opinions differed, the BSK candidate won every time except one.
“The community has agreed with our endorsements over their endorsements when there was a difference every single time” except once in 2012, McKim said.
Every BSK-endorsed candidate in the 2014 and 2016 elections won. All but one current board member, Chris Kolb, was endorsed by BSK at some point. No candidate in Kolb’s 2016 race was endorsed by BSK, McKim said.
The trend, the one the Fund hoped to end, led to what critics call a “union-controlled board.”
Disagreeing, McKim called the idea a “myth” while pointing to times like August’s settlement agreement where board members have differed from the official union stance. If it was a union-controlled board, the split vote would have been unanimous in favor of settling with the state, McKim said.
Teachers will support candidates who want to do the right thing for kids, but that doesn’t mean those candidates will vote in agreement with the union, McKim said.
But there is a difference between the two groups throwing money into a board race: One group represents stakeholders, he said.
“There’s a huge contrast,” McKim said. One group represents around 6,000 teachers inside schools daily, while the other represents “a half-dozen” wealthy and influential people who, McKim claimed, may not have attended or sent their kids to public schools or understand what the district needs.
The teachers union’s power extends outside of the Jefferson County school board. BSK has donated over $100,000 to 44 candidates across the state, most of them running for state legislature, according to election filing data.
BSK’s contributions and endorsements are dictated by a 12-person committee of JCTA members. Membership dues aren’t used for political contributions, with the money coming from voluntary donations from union members, McKim said.
The PAC is spending less on state legislative races this year in an effort to be “more strategic” about its contributions, he said, adding that in an education-centered midterm, the support of a teachers union matters more than normal.
“Saying you’ve been endorsed by teachers is particularly valuable” this election cycle, McKim said. It shows they support teachers, and teachers support them, he added.
Like any other PAC, the union PAC supports candidates that align with their goals and beliefs. One such candidate is Andrew Bailey, JCTA’s treasurer and write-in state senate candidate in District 38.
Bailey, a veteran JCPS teacher, is running against a 20-year incumbent on a priority list reflective of the tumultuous year for public education. If elected, he will work to repeal charter school legislation, fully fund public schools and protect pensions, according to his campaign website.
BSK donated $4,000 to Bailey — roughly two-thirds of Bailey’s entire campaign. The state teachers union’s PAC kicked in another $1,000. Bailey, who has been the union’s treasurer for four terms, did not have a say in who the PAC endorsed or donated to, McKim said.
McKim said he didn’t see a conflict of interest in donating to Bailey’s campaign, arguing it would be “discriminatory” to prevent him from potentially receiving a contribution for being a union member. Bailey did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
While not a conflict of interest, Bailey may have run afoul of campaign finance rules. Candidates are allowed up to $2,000 from an individual or PAC in the primary and general elections, good for a total of $4,000.
BSK’s donation was split into two $2,000 contributions, one each for the primary and general elections, according to filings. However, Bailey did not compete in a primary and was only clear to accept donations for the general election, a KREF official said.
“I am not saying he is in violation as I have not personally confirmed these contributions, but I am saying that such a situation would be contrary to the law,” KREF Executive Director John Steffen said in an email. Typically, the candidate has to return the extra money to the donor.
Similar to Bailey, union-backed candidates almost always labeled improving K-12 education is a top priority, according to survey results from the Prichard Committee. Only one — Joy Gray — said she would support charter schools but would require oversight into their test scores and finances.
Charter support is “not a litmus test” for union support, McKim said, noting it is “more nuanced” than that. Teachers unions are generally thought of as anti-charter, but McKim said there is a way to do charter schools that is “reasonable.”
Looking forward, McKim did not speculate if the Bluegrass Fund or other PACs would return to school board elections.
“I don’t view them as an automatic adversary,” he said.