Newcomers Sheila Franklin and Trey Geier ousted controversial incumbents from the Conway School Board.

 

Challengers Sheila Franklin and Trey Geier on Tuesday defeated two incumbents on the Conway School Board, a panel that has deeply divided the community in the past year by focusing on cultural and political issues rather than education and finances.

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Franklin is a former Head Start teacher and juvenile probation/intake officer. Geier, a former Army combat veteran, is a project manager at a roofing company.

Only two of the board’s seven members were up for election Tuesday.

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With 7,502 ballots cast, the elections drew the largest turnout in Conway for a stand-alone school board election that wasn’t on a primary or general-election ballot, said Faulkner County Clerk Margaret Darter.

School board elections are by law nonpartisan in Arkansas, but the Conway races became so contentious and aligned with political ideology that even Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders joined the fray today and endorsed the two self-styled conservative incumbents.

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With all precincts reporting, unofficial vote totals, according to the clerk’s office, were:

At-large seat (Incumbents marked with asterisk.)

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Jennifer Cunningham*  3,301

Sheila Franklin   4,160

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Jess Disney  28

Zone 5 seat:

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Bill Milburn*  547

Trey Geier.  660

Voters approved a millage proposal, which would maintain the current tax levy and not raise it.

For.  4,259

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Against 2,901

Disney withdrew from the race and endorsed Franklin, but Disney’s name remained on the ballot and her votes were counted.

Sheila Franklin

Randi House, the Arkansas Teacher of the Year in 2018 and a Conway kindergarten teacher, celebrated on Facebook with this post: “There were so many happy tears at Sheila Franklin’s watch party tonight. I am absolutely proud of our community for showing up and voting for Sheila Franklin and Trey Geier for Conway School Board. Conway is ready for positive change for ALL students, teachers, and administrators.”

Julie McDonald, a leader in Save Our Schools formed in response to the board’s most controversial actions, said in a statement that she felt as if “we had two strong challengers and a community looking for leaders that listen and respond to their concerns. The community of Conway sent a message in this election that we want to see our school and community move in a different direction.”

The current board has largely ignored or shut down protests and bowed to right-wing demands to ban books, make it harder for transgender students to use the restroom without unintentionally outing themselves, and criticize underpaid and overworked teachers by complaining about indoctrination in the classrooms.

Milburn suggested Christian church-goers would vote for him, and Cunningham joined in a defamatory attack against a transgender woman recently on Facebook.

Milburn was the only candidate who turned out to the Faulkner County Courthouse to await election results Tuesday night.

Franklin described herself during the campaign as “a strong woman of faith,” but she never suggested all churchgoers would necessarily support her campaign.

Instead, Franklin suggested the board should focus on education. “There’s absolutely no room for politics in a public school,” she said in an email. “If someone’s platform or values are focused only on being Conservative, Republican, Liberal, or Democrat, then I don’t understand how they could truly serve the people who don’t look like me, think like me, or believe like me. Therefore, my platform and values are to serve, be a leader, to advocate, and to encourage excellence in our students, educators, administrators, staff, and our community.”

Franklin’s youngest daughter, LaShanta Johnson, is an assistant basketball coach and the head tennis coach in the Conway School District but announced today that she has been named head women’s basketball coach in the Russellville School District. Johnson was among the Conway coaches who temporarily were forbidden from wearing Black History Month T-shirts at basketball games earlier this year. Franklin’s son-in-law is the assistant principal at a Conway elementary school, and her husband has served 29 years as an administrator there. Neither Cunningham nor Milburn was apparently involved in the T-shirt decision, though Milburn defended it.

Cunningham is vice president of the school board and “a concerned parent,” according to her campaign literature. She drew criticism recently after she thanked a woman on Facebook for a post that described Cunningham’s opponent as “mentally ill.” The post did not identify the opponent by name. Neither Franklin nor Disney is mentally ill. Cunningham later deleted her comment, and the post soon disappeared, too.

Cunningham has taken credit for increased teacher pay, for funding additional school resource officers, and for championing parental rights (unless they’re the parents of LGBQT children or others not sharing her ideology).

Trey Geier

Milburn, a retired police major in Conway, said he would work to improve school safety and also wanted to see a focus on reading proficiency.

Geier said during the campaign that the current  board “has focused on a culture war and taken their focus off of the education of ALL kids in the Conway School District.

“My kids, all kids, deserve a school board that is laser focused on education,” said Geier, who has three children in the school district..

“I absolutely believe that the current school board has not been focused on education or on supporting our teachers and students,” Geier added. “Coming out of COVID, our test scores and school ratings are not where they should be. We’ve lost institutional knowledge as valuable teachers and administrators have left the district. We have not adequately prepared for the impact of Arkansas LEARNS.”

The board gained national attention in October when it approved a formal policy requiring students to use the restroom aligned with the gender on their “original” birth certificate. As an alternative, a person can ask to use a single-use restroom — a room some buildings didn’t even have at the time. Some critics felt the policy was intended to grandstand because it was already in effect, just not in writing.

At that same meeting, the board opted to remove two books dealing with transgender issues from a school library despite a committee’s suggestion that they be retained.

Milburn, who was later appointed to the board to fill a vacancy, was not on the panel at the time but has defended the restroom policy, saying it was a compromise.

Though Cunningham says little at board meetings, she has been vocal in campaign literature and on Facebook during the campaign. In a Facebook post this week, she criticized what she views as the left’s  “woke” agenda and “indoctrination.”

The board also has drawn criticism for refusing to meet in a room large enough to accommodate the public and for a lack of transparency.

The board also got pushback for asking an attorney to draft a marathon list of topics that some on the far right apparently believe should be forbidden in classrooms. Many of those topics were taken from Citizens for Renewing America, a right-wing Washington outfit, though Conway’s proposal added references to gender and sexuality. Board member Linda Hargis has said board members rejected the proposal, though there’s no recorded record of that September meeting as state law requires.