- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 13, 2014

GALLATIN, Tenn. (AP) - It all started on Sibyl Reagan’s laptop computer.

What began as a Facebook page where Sumner County parents vented their frustration when schools didn’t start on time in 2012 turned into a political movement last week that could alter the county’s political landscape for years to come.

Reagan was one of thousands of parents stunned in August 2012 when the county school board voted to delay the start of classes because of a funding dispute with the Sumner County Commission. The stalemate lasted nine days.

The mother of three created the Facebook page to rally parents to call their elected officials and attend county commission and school board meetings. During that time, several parents joined Reagan in crafting a long-term plan to tackle what they saw as a decades-old problem: the same politicians funding pet projects while the school system suffered.

Former school board candidate Andy Spears, Aimee Vance and a handful of other parents joined Reagan in starting Strong Schools, a nonprofit organization dedicated to making sure the school system receives the funds it needs to be competitive with other systems.

They knew true change would occur only at election time. They started enlisting candidates last fall and targeted county commissioners who in 2012 were reticent to give the school system more money - either from reserve funds or in the form of a property tax increase. Strong Schools held forums and sent questionnaires to candidates, posting the results on its website.

The group’s nearly 3,800 members on Facebook used social media, emails and phone calls to get people to the polls. An average of 20 volunteers a day worked the polls during early voting, and more than 100 worked on election day.

The group also formed a Strong Schools PAC, spending about $4,300 April 1-26 on its “pro schools” candidates.

Their hard work paid off last week, when 13 county commission candidates it had endorsed in the May 6 Republican primary won - and three longtime incumbents were defeated. With seven incumbents not running this year, similar results in August could mean a majority on the 24-member body.

In addition, more than twice as many people voted in this year’s primary election than voted four years ago - a turnout of 10.74 percent vs. 2010’s dismal 4.94 percent.

When asked about high early voting numbers, Sumner County Administrator of Elections Lori Atchley said she thought Strong Schools had an impact.

“I think what happened in 2012 angered a lot of parents,” Atchley said. “And you still have some people that were very upset about that.”

The group’s success didn’t surprise Reagan.

“We listened to Sumner County voters enough to know what they were looking for,” she said. “They were looking for people who would listen and who would communicate with each other.”

She said the group’s focus is about more than funding.

“Funding started it, yes, but like everything else, we’ve evolved. Now, it’s more, ‘We want long-term planning,’ and, ‘We want a commission that manages our money responsibly.’ “

School board member Beth Cox said the group has educated voters and shown that a nonpartisan group can have success at the polls when it has a common goal.

“For years, people didn’t know what a county commissioner did, or who their county commissioner was,” Cox said. Strong Schools “captured the passion people had about the budget battle, and they were constantly educating the public - and that was lacking before.”

Cox said part of the group’s appeal is that it is nonpartisan.

“They put partisanship aside,” Cox said, “and look for the good of the community and good of education. I think that’s why they are so appealing.”

The group is not without opposition, however. Sumner United for Responsible Government, the county’s tea party group, endorsed incumbents in five of the contested county commission races in the May 6 primary. Three of them lost, and the two others likely will become Strong Schools targets in August.

“In order to be ‘fully funded,’ the only logical solution is a tax increase,” said SURG President Ruth Fennell.

“We believe in schools, but we want the dollars to be used as efficiently and effectively as possible, and we need commissioners who are committed to that, not just a single priority. More money is not always the answer.”


Information from: The Tennessean, https://www.tennessean.com

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