Opinion: Record amount of nearly $106,000 raised by candidates for District 11 school board seat

Staff Photo By Olivia Ross / Democrat Jill Black was the winner last week in the District 6 Hamilton County Board of Education race, where the three candidates received contributions of nearly $106,000 for a position that pays around $12,000.

Candidates for the District 11 Hamilton County Board of Education seat didn't just set a record for raking in contributions for a school board seat. They obliterated the previous record.

The three candidates received a combined $105,960.59 for a post that pays around $12,000 a year.

Before this year, the most that had been contributed was a combined $70,477 for the two candidates in District 2 in 2020.

Both Democrat Jill Black, the winning District 11 candidate with 50.01% of the vote, and Republican Virginia Anne Manson, who finished second, also blew past the highest amount raised by one candidate in a local school board race. Black collected $48,555.59, while Manson picked up $52,795. Previously, the most received had been $39,575 by Republican Tom Decosimo in a losing bid in District 2 in 2020.

Before 2020, the races in the previous two cycles where the most combined money was raised by candidates was more than $34,000 in District 6 in 2018 and more than $33,000 in District 4 in 2016.

Black and Manson each raised more money than the total amount of contributions for all of the candidates in each of the other six school board races.

The next highest amount for a race and for an individual candidate was donated in District 6, where there was an open seat. In that race, Democrat Ben Connor - who won the race - raised $34,437.68, while the District 6 candidates in the primary and general election together raised $39,815.11.

The outrageous amounts of money contributed in the District 11 race likely occurred for two reasons.

Last fall, the Tennessee General Assembly permitted school board races to be contested for the first time on a partisan basis. That meant there was a good chance more money would be spent to achieve a board that leaned one ideological direction or another instead of leaning only toward students and their needs.

Then, also last fall, the Hamilton County Commission decided to split the county into 11 districts, following the results of the 2020 census. Because of the way commission members drew the new District 11, it had the potential to be a swing district, meaning it might be won by either a Republican or a Democrat.

As it turned out, that's exactly what happened. Black won the school board seat, and Republican Joe Graham won the county commission seat by 30 votes.

Since Manson raised the most money among school board candidates and lost her race, her cost-per-vote (total raised divided by total votes) was the highest of all candidates at $27.80 per vote. Black was next at $22.41, followed by Connor at $9.18 per vote.

The winning candidates in the other races got off much more cheaply.

In District 3, incumbent Joe Smith won re-election by spending $1.86 per vote. In District 5, Karitsa Mosley Jones won her third term at $1.30 per vote. In District 6, Larry Grohn spent $3.60 per vote. In District 9, Gary Kuehn won his race at $2.70 per vote. And in District 10, the second new district created following the 2020 census, Faye Robinson won her race by spending $2.31 per vote.

The most expensive county commission race was District 6, where David Sharpe won his second term over challenger Ruth Jeno.

The incumbent collected $60,780.34, including a whopping $25,000-plus in July contributions. The late givers included $5,000 from the Iron Workers Local 704 political action committee (PAC), $2,500 from the IBEW PAC Educational Fund, $1,000 from the Hamilton County Education Association, and $610 from the Committee to Elect [former Chattanooga City Councilman] Jerry Mitchell.

Jeno raised $55,494.30, including July donations from former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp ($250), his wife, Kim ($250), their daughter, Coty (now the county district attorney) ($350), Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Lila Statom ($250), Chattanooga City Court Judge Sherry Paty ($200) and Hamilton County Circuit Court Clerk Larry Henry ($200).

In the only other competitive county commission race in the general election last week, in District 11, the Republican Graham raised $25,634.02. His opponent, Democrat Montrell Besley, raised $24,465 through the first quarter of the year but had turned in neither his second-quarter nor his pre-general election filing.

In the third contested commission race decided last week in District 9, winner Steve Highlander and challenger Steve Caudle together raised less than $33,500.

What difference does money make? In only four out of seven school board races this year did the candidate who raised the most money win. In the three county commission races decided last week, two of the candidates who collected the most contributions in their races were winners. In the third contest (District 11), once final figures are in, the loser (Besley) likely will have raised more than the winner (Graham).

We trust that means voters are also paying attention to the candidates themselves and what they stand for.