Debbie Wesslund

School board politics appear to have brought together two unlikely allies.

Education insiders tell Insider Louisville that Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, is waging a behind-the-scenes effort to assure this fall’s Board of Education elections produce a school board majority favorable to renewing Dr. Sheldon Berman’s contract. Berman’s contract as superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools expires next June.

As part of that effort, multiple sources confirmed to Insider Louisville that  liberal labor union leader McKim has recruited conservative activist David Toborowsky to run against Third District incumbent Debbie Wesslund, who represents eastern Jefferson County.

Toborowsky is close to far-right political figures including anti-gay rights crusader Dr. Frank Simon, a Louisville allergist.

Insider Louisville confirmed through multiple sources that McKim has bragged about recruiting Toborowsky. Steve Neal, retired JCTA executive director, confirmed that McKim made the claim to him.

After one conversation, Neal said, he told McKim that there could be ramifications: “I said, ‘Brent, if this gets out, it’s going to be horribly embarrassing. And he said, ‘Well, they’ll never find out.’ ”

Asked in an interview if McKim recruited him, Toborowsky said, “I wouldn’t use the word, ‘recruited.’ ”

Toborowsky said he discussed his candidacy with McKim “as a friend. He’s a friend the way I’d consider a lot of people (to be) friends.” Though Toborowsky acknowledged  his conservative political views often diverge from McKim’s, the two agree on education and on teacher advocacy issues.

Asked a second time whether McKim recruited him, Toborowsky said, “Brent did not recruit me.”

McKim said that though JCTA doesn’t have “an organizational position” on Berman’s contract renewal, “I will say we have a very good working relationship. If you ask me if it should be renewed, I’d say his contract should be renewed. He’s doing very good work.”

McKim denies that he directly recruited Toborowsky to run against Wesslund: “I did not ask him (to run), but I know him on a personal level. I appreciate that he’s come out and supported us in the past, and I’m happy he’s in the race. It gives us another choice to look at and that’s a good thing.”

In 2004, when teachers rallied against then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s proposal to change healthcare benefits for state employees, Toborowsky broke with the Republican governor and attended those rallies, McKim said. McKim made it clear that Wesslund cannot expect an automatic JCTA endorsement: “We do not consider the incumbent a friendly incumbent who is automatic (for union backing).”

McKim criticized Wesslund for lack of support for Jefferson County’s application for Race for the Top, a new competitive federal program that will award $3.4 billion in grants to schools that submit  the best “ambitious yet achievable plans” for education reform plans.

JCTA officials “asked Debbie to weigh in with us, but we didn’t feel like she was supportive,” McKim said.

Every school district in Kentucky collaborated on Kentucky’s Race for the Top application. But Jefferson County officials worried that officials from other school systems might include language “we didn’t like,” said Wesslund, who supported the option of a separate Jefferson County application. As it turned out, Kentucky is one of 19 Phase 1 Race for the Top finalist, “and we never had to make that decision,” Wesslund said. “But I must say, Brent worked very hard on that.”

Wesslund said three people have told her that McKim had recruited Toborowsky to run against her. Though Wesslund said she hasn’t discussed the election directly with Toborowsky or McKim, “I guess if you hear something more than once, there’s a grain of truth to it.”

Wesslund said she didn’t know about Toborowsky’s political activism until she Googled his name after Toborowsky filed to run against her.

She declined to discuss Toborowsky’s politics. But, she added, “People who want to run for the school board have to be completely committed to improving education. Period. Full stop.”

Wesslund said she won’t discuss her position on Berman’s contract renewal until after consultation with the post-election Board of Education membership.

Toborowsky said as a school board member, he wouldn’t be an automatic yes vote on Berman’s contract renewal. “Berman has been there three years,” he said. “I want to hold him accountable.” Toborowsky is not a fan of the current school assignment plan, which he says limits choices and puts too many students on long bus rides to schools far from their homes. The plan requires schools to enroll between 15 percent and 50 percent of students from neighborhoods where average household income and educational levels are low and the minority population is more than 48 percent.

Starting next week, JCTC’s political action committee is scheduled to interview all school board candidates before making its 2010 endorsements. “If Brent thinks (Toborowsky) will make a good school board member,” Wesslund said, “let him endorse him.”

The players:

David Toborowsky: Toborowsky admits to being something of a political enigma: “I’m a different kind of Republican.”

Over the years, though, Toborowsky has a been a high-profile activist working for numerous conservative causes and candidates. Public records indicate that Toborowsky contributed $1,000 to conservative Republican Chris Theineman’s 2008 U.S. House campaign. That campaign drew support from figures such as Dr. Frank Simon, a staunch opponent of Louisville’s Fairness Campaign, and Toborowsky was a guest on a 2009 segment Simon’s Christian webcast, “The Rest of the News,” discussing the Tea Party movement.

In an interview with Insider Louisville, Toborowsky said Simon included him on the webcast because Toborowsky is a conservative, “but I have different views than Dr. Simon.” However, in the webcast, Toborowsky agrees with Simon on all points including a promotion for a Tea Party rally.

Many Tea Party-aligned candidates have called for abolishing the U.S. Department of Education and cutting funding for public schools in favor of charter schools. But Toboworsky is adamant he’s not part of a Tea Party movement to target local elections.

Toborowsky said he believes in less government, but also believes federal involvement is necessary in defense, education and other crucial public services such as policing and firefighting.

Ideologically, he said, he agrees “with a lot of things in the Tea Party movement, but I’m not a Tea Party member. I’m my own person. And I’m not always going to agree with Brent (McKim) and the teachers’ union on every issue. Who is?”

“I think he’s complex,” McKim said. “I don’t think he’s where Dr. Simon is” on gay rights or charter schools.  “I guess the company he keeps isn’t necessarily indicative of where he is on any given issue. He’s more diagonal, rather than left or right.”

Dr. Sheldon Berman: Berman became superintendent of the Jefferson County schools in 2007 after the Jefferson County Board of Education did not renew the contract of his predecessor, Dr. Stephen Daeschner. Since then, Berman has received kudos for a number of successes including ambitious, innovative classroom initiatives, as well as criticism for excessive travel to destinations such as Republic of South Africa and Canada during a 13-month period.

Related stories:

JCPS considering tax rate increase (The Courier-Journal)

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