The August 4 school board elections will be the first partisan races in Metro Nashville public school history. These are also the first school board elections since 2020. In the years since the start of the pandemic, local school boards have garnered heightened attention as heated political discourse has crept into education. and students continue to recover academically from a year of COVID-induced virtual learning. Some parents felt emboldened and took a greater role in the education of their children, not to mention the education of the approximately 82,000 other MNPS students.
There are two main camps in this year’s elections – those with experience with education policy and those without. Incumbents Rachael Anne Elrod (District 2) and Fran Bush (District 6) are running to retain their seats. Cheryl Mayes (District 6) served on the board from 2012-2014, but was not re-elected in 2014. Berthena Nabaa-McKinney (District 4) owns an education consulting firm and was appointed to temporarily represent District 4 after the death of Anna Shepherd, then Representative. in 2020. Although John Little was ultimately elected to serve out the remainder of Shepherd’s term in the district, he lost to Nabaa-McKinney in that year’s Democratic primary election. Erin O’Hara Block (District 8) has held various education-related positions for the state and served as executive director of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance. Apart from Bush, who is running as an independent, all of these candidates are running as Democrats, having won their party’s primaries in May.
Other candidates cite their passion as parents in hopes of gaining votes. Edward Arnold (District 2) and Amy Pate (District 8) are running as independents, while Todd Pembroke (District 2) and Kelli Phillips (District 4) won the Republican primaries. Arnold has teaching experience and Pate has been active in parent-teacher organizations.
Last month, Conexión Américas, Nashville Organized for Action and Hope, Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, CivicTN, and Urban League of Middle Tennessee hosted a forum for MNPS candidates, moderated by Tennesseeby David Plazas. Bush was the only contestant not in attendance, but she spoke through surrogate Bernadette Minyard.
The opinions of the candidates remained for the most part within the limits of the party. Arnold, who ran unsuccessfully in 2014 and 2018, said he was running as an independent because neither Republicans nor Democrats supported his tax proposals. Pate, who was particularly critical of the district for keeping schools closed in 2020, said she was running as an independent because she “didn’t want to get involved in culture wars.” Bush also pushed for schools to reopen that year and often challenges, clashes with and criticizes fellow current board members.
Plazas asked each candidate if they thought teachers should be armed in the event of active shooters. Pembroke, a member of the US Army National Guard, was the only candidate to support the idea – as long as teachers receive training. Other candidates, including Phillips and Arnold, did not provide a definitive answer on arming teachers. Arnold, along with Pembroke, Phillips and Minyard (on behalf of Bush) have declared their support for school resource officers. Bush does not support arming teachers. O’Hara Block and Elrod, who do not support arming teachers, have also criticized the presence of ORS in schools. Neither Pate, Nabaa-McKinney nor Mayes mentioned ORS, but none supported arming teachers.
The education political action committee of the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association — Nashville’s teachers’ union — endorsed Elrod, Nabaa-McKinney, Mayes and O’Hara Block. SEIU Local 205, which represents some of the MNPS support staff, endorsed Elrod, Nabaa-McKinney and O’Hara Block. SEIU does not endorse a candidate in District 6. Although SEIU declined to comment, Bush and Mayes have faced criticism from unions in the past. In 2021, the teachers’ union filed an ethics complaint against Bush for fighting with teachers over reopening schools. In 2014, SEIU accused Mayes of violating council policies regarding the MNPS ownership campaign. A SEIU blog post from that year states that Mayes was “ousted from elective office through the force of the SEIU political agenda. … Mayes was also a strong supporter of schools superintendent Jesse Register, with whom the union has had repeated disputes since arriving in Nashville.
The attention surrounding the school board has faded since the district withdrew its mask mandate, and most of the culture war issues have played out at the state level. Issues most likely to dominate the coming year include charter schools, safety and security, school resumption, censorship and ongoing board responsibilities.
The state and federal primaries and Davidson County general election are on the Aug. 4 ballot