Jodi Riggins is not just the only Democrat on the Aug. 4 ballot for the District 5 seat on the Cleveland City School Board.
She's also the only Democrat on the ballot for any local race in Bradley County.
If that's not daunting enough, Riggins is running against Republican mega-businessman Allan Jones, a 69-year-old Cleveland native with ties to former President Donald Trump who gained his wealth through a payday lending business that set the standard for the industry, led him to numerous other successful businesses and allowed him to become a big-money backer for Cleveland City Schools athletics, particularly in wrestling.
Jones and Riggins, both seeking elected office for the first time, are vying for the seat held by Tom Cloud, who did not seek re-election, and both said in recent phone interviews they have never met. The two are in the only contested race of four seats on the ballot.
Riggins, 71, is a 30-year veteran physician's assistant in the Cleveland region who became a Democrat when Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, she said Thursday in a phone interview. She changed her party because of her years seeing families struggle to find good health insurance and care they could afford, and Obama had an answer in what would become the Affordable Care Act, she said.
"But I'm a pretty conservative person," she said, offering as proof her position against abortion rights. "You can be a Democrat and be pro-life."
Riggins' decision to run for the city school board stemmed from the upcoming open seat in District 5 and her experience serving families in health care over the past three decades, she said.
"I wasn't recruited by anybody. I just thought about it and I talked to people who have been on the board, and I talked with people who were on the board to see if it was something I could do that I was qualified for," Riggins said. "I've worked with children and parents and schools as a health care provider for a while, and I felt that helps me a bit. My children all went to Cleveland City Schools and now they teach at Cleveland City Schools."
Riggins said her family is invested in the community and the school system, and a school board post seemed a reasonable next step.
"Here's my deal, we don't have Democrat schools, we don't have Republican schools, we have public schools, and I am committed to public schools," she said. "I'm just blown away by how hard these people work."
Riggins said she doesn't know what her chances are against District 5 opponent Jones.
"I just try to take the approach that I'm running for Cleveland City School Board," she said. "I don't try to focus a lot on who I'm running against."
Riggins said she has no personal agenda and no plans for major changes.
"Basically, I'm going to be a team member, and I'm going to deal with issues as they arise," she said. "What I learned in health care is, you have a patient and you have a problem. You have to do a good examination of the person, you have to look at all the data, then you make a diagnosis and you make a plan to treat that problem."
She said people have said she needs to talk more about what's wrong with the schools.
"But I'm kind of a glass-half-full person, and I think we need to build on the success the schools have already had," she said. "I want to work within the structure that's already set up so we can do better. There's so much more involved in evaluating schools than one test score from one test day," she said, a reference to Jones' focus on academic scores in his assessments of the system.
ELECTION DAY BRADLEY COUNTY
2022 State/Federal Primary and County General Elections
Election day: Aug. 4
Bradley County poll hours: 8 a.m.-8 p.m.
Source: Bradley County Election Commission
In a phone interview Friday, Jones — a 1972 Cleveland High School graduate — said he wants to become the first alumni on Cleveland's school board, something he contends is important because it demonstrates his investment in the system. He said two other Cleveland High alumni — Matthew Coleman and Andy Lay — already won their respective school board primaries and are unopposed on the Aug. 4 ballot, so he would bring the alumni count to three if he wins. Incumbent Republican Peggy Ann Pesterfield also won her primary and is unopposed for her seat on the seven-member panel.
"First of all, the school board I've always said is the most important position we can offer ourselves to — it's not City Council, it's not the Senate, it all starts at the school board level," Jones said of one of his reasons for running.
He couldn't get anyone else to enter the District 5 race this year, so he took up the effort himself, he said.
Jones pointed to data released this week by schooldigger.com, which he said indicates Cleveland schools lag behind sister system Bradley County Schools in rankings over the past two years.
In schooldigger's 2020-2021 rankings based on standardized test scores, class size and other performance data, Cleveland was ranked 105 out of 140 school systems in Tennessee while Bradley was ranked 57th; and in 2021-2022, Cleveland schools were ranked 118 out of 140 school systems in the state while Bradley schools ranked 54th, schooldigger shows.
Jones has been critical of the current school board, its chairwoman and the city's current director of schools and has laid out a six-year plan for improving the system starting by going directly to teachers to learn their concerns first-hand, out of earshot of supervisors.
Improvements must start at the sixth grade level with a renewed focus on reading and math, he said. In high school, Jones wants to bring back an accounting class to rejuvenate the business curriculum and launch a new biology program with field trips offering hands-on experiences.
Jones wants to end the Raider Scholars recognition of high-performing seniors in each school year's "Graduates of Distinction" group, some years numbering a dozen or more students, and return to traditional valedictorian and salutatorian recognition of just two students from each year's graduates, who can take advantage of specific scholarships.
He plans to improve efficiency by restraining spending and reduce school construction costs by standardizing architectural plans so they can be used multiple times. He said he's immune to sweetheart deals.
"Fortunately for our city taxpayers, the architects and builders don't have enough money to wine and dine me. Anything they could offer me, I can buy for myself," he states in his education plan. "The current school board likes to make fun of my wealth, but my wealth will benefit the taxpayers because I can't be bribed with expensive dinners, tickets or gifts."
Jones said the best school system leaders have a business owner's background and said potential new hires for school staff and teachers should undergo a personality profile to make sure they're up to the job.
He said the high school's wrestling team is an example of his positive impact with a 145-3 record over the past five years. Jones took the wrestling program under his wing more than 15 years ago, supporting it with his vast resources, and in the past 10 years, Cleveland High notched eight state championships, a level of success he contends he can duplicate in the classroom.
"I'm good at picking people. That's what's making me successful," he said. "This year, our wrestling program will be No. 1 for the sixth year in a row. We can do that for the school system if we use these same principles."