Conservative moms group hosting candidate forum on Hamilton County school grounds sparks criticism

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Brandy Howard addresses the Hamilton County School Board during a meeting on Thursday, March 17, 2022.

Moms for Liberty, a parental rights activist group, will host school board candidate forums next week at Red Bank and Ooltewah high schools - but the move has been met with criticism as the group has publicly endorsed Republican school board candidates.

Brandy Howard, the Hamilton County chapter chairwoman, said the forum is completely nonpartisan.

"Every candidate was invited," Howard said in a phone call. "Moms for Liberty is a nonpartisan group, conservative values, but nonpartisan, supporting and advocating for parental rights and the authority of parents to make all decisions regarding their children. If anybody was ever excluded at an event at a school building, I would have a problem with that."

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reached out to Democratic school board candidates to ask if they had been invited. Jill Black, running for District 11, and Katie Perkins, running for District 8, confirmed they had each received an invitation. They will not attend the forum. Democrat Jeff Crim, running for District 10, said he received an invitation only after contacting Moms for Liberty and he plans to attend.

"They claim they invited me from the beginning but I have no communications from them that I can find prior to me reaching out to them," Crim said in a phone call.

Howard said Crim's claims are untrue and an invitation had been sent to a different email address than he used to contact them. Howard said she forwarded him the original email to show him he had been invited from the start.

The Times Free Press was unable to reach Democrats Ben Connor, running for District 6, and Jenn Piroth, running for District 3.

Though Crim said he plans to attend, Howard said all the Democrats declined the invitation.

"Every Democrat that was invited has declined, and some of them in a pretty ugly public fashion," she said.

Moms for Social Justice, a social justice advocacy group, said it's insincere to characterize the forum as nonpartisan.

"They have publicly endorsed school board candidates," the founder of Moms for Social Justice, Taylor Lyons, said in a text message to the Times Free Press. "As such, it is entirely disingenuous to pretend this is a neutral informational candidate forum."

Moms for Liberty has endorsed Republican candidates Virginia Anne Manson, running for District 11, and Faye Robinson, running for District 10, on Facebook, telling followers to "Vote for Virginia" and "Vote for Faye."

In another post, the group shared a video created by Republican Charles Paty who is vying for the District 5 seat currently held by Democrat Karitsa Jones.

The video shows clips of Jones at board meetings saying she would not vote to ease a teacher mask requirement or to return students to classrooms. Text scrolls across the screen that reads "Eight long years, and she still does not listen to you." The caption on the shared video written by Moms for Liberty said, "It's time for a change in District 5."

On April 5, the group posted a video of Black with pictures of her from Halloween dressed as a witch. As the photos flash by, audio over the video says "You're a witch" and "witch" repeatedly.

Howard said as a 501(c)(4) organization, Moms for Liberty is allowed to endorse candidates.

"Whatever candidate is most respectful and recognizing parental authority when it comes to their children, that's who we'll support," Howard said.

Moms for Social Justice also raised an issue with the forum after learning Republican District 9 school board member James Walker, R-Birchwood, may have organized the event.

"Mr. Walker's intimate involvement is in clear violation of Hamilton County school board Policy Article II, Section 2, that instructs board members to refrain from representing partisan politics while acting in their civic duty," Lyons said in a text. "Based off of this bias, we also are inclined to ask if Mr. Walker granted them access without charging them the fees required per board policy 3.206, leaving HCS to pay for utilities, staffing and janitorial services for a group that isn't an approved school support organization."

Walker said he didn't organize the forum but helped Moms for Liberty fill out the facility-use forms.

"They were reaching out to a couple of places to have forums for all of the candidates, all parties," Walker said in a phone call. "I directed them on how to go to the Hamilton County website and enter the form and information. (Moms for Liberty is) not affiliated with a party. They are a community group that welcomes anybody to be a part of it. And they are having a forum. Yeah, obviously, you can tell how they feel and lean, but they're not associated with any political party."

The district's facility-use policy allows groups to host events on school grounds. Forms are required as well as proof of insurance. Steve Doremus, communications director for the district, said in an email Moms for Liberty had filled out the paperwork following policy. Howard said proof of insurance has been provided and they were not charged a fee for use of the facilities.

Moms for Social Justice said that regardless of the facility-use policy, the group is dismayed the district would allow the Moms for Liberty events on school grounds.

"Certainly we know that there is a long-standing tradition of nonpartisan candidate forums on school grounds, which is healthy and good for the democratic process," Lyons said. "This is not an example of such a forum. As 'stakeholders,' we are disturbed that a political organization with such extreme views and negative attack tactics has been given use of public school property for partisan politics, which has no place in our schools."

Walker said he was surprised by Moms for Social Justice's reaction and believes the group is overreacting. He added that he would help any group wanting to use district facilities.

"It's just silly to me," Walker said. "It's silly. It's bizarre to me how people react."

Howard said all community members are invited to attend and submit questions to the candidates.

"We're the only parent group asking questions of candidates from the parents' perspective," Howard said.

The forum for candidates in Districts 3, 6, 8 and 11 will be held from 6:30-8 p.m. Monday at Red Bank High School. A meet-and-greet with the candidates is scheduled for 6-6:30 p.m.

The forum for candidates in Districts 5, 9 and 10 will be held from 6:30-8 p.m. July 18 at Ooltewah High School. A meet-and-greet with the candidates is scheduled for 6-6:30 p.m.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.