Conway Public School at-large board member-elect Sheila Franklin hugs her husband Ed after receiving final results of the school board election at a watch party on Tuesday, May 9, 2023, at the Willow Events Center in Conway, AR. Franklin unseated incumbent Jennifer Cunningham in the election. MIKE KEMP PHOTO

Voters supporting the victories of two challengers to “conservative” Conway School Board incumbents celebrated at an election watch party, on social media, with pictures of hugs and tears and with plenty of exclamation points.

Former Head Start teacher Sheila Franklin defeated incumbent Jennifer Cunningham, for an at-large board seat, and former Army combat veteran Trey Geier beat incumbent Bill Milburn in Zone 5. The elections were by law nonpartisan but were muddled with more than a little politics.

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In a statement today, Franklin, also a former juvenile probation/intake officer, thanked supporters and God for her victory but called out Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders‘ partisan meddling in Tuesday’s elections. As the campaign was ending, Sanders issued a statement endorsing Cunningham and Milburn.

Franklin reminded people that Arkansas school board elections “are nonpartisan positions for a good reason.”

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“There is absolutely no room for politics in a public school. When the leader of our state decided to publicly endorse my opponent, it was disappointing but not surprising. There is no way that can be considered nonpartisan. It’s really sad when the rules don’t apply to everyone,” Franklin said.

“If a person is running their campaign on the values of being Conservative, Democratic, Republican, Liberal, etc., that would make me believe those are the only people who you will choose to serve. People who look like you, believe like you, think like you, and have the same advantages or disadvantages as you,” she added. “There’s absolutely no place for that in the [Conway School District.] We must serve everyone. We don’t get to decide who we serve, but we do decide how we serve them. I can promise I will serve ALL of them well. … I will also support those who didn’t vote for me because I serve you all.”

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Franklin said that “it’s past time for us to get rid of the divisiveness.”

“I believe that starts with the leadership, and the school board has to take responsibility and hold themselves accountable. We need to get back to making sure that our first focus is academic excellence,” she said.

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“I have a passion for educators, and it hurts my heart to hear leaders talking about our teachers are indoctrinating our students. They are educating our students, and it’s an insult and slap in these professionals’ faces to speak anything different. They are overworked and underpaid, so why would anyone think they had the time to do anything but teach?”

The comment was clearly a reference at least in part to a recent Cunningham campaign flyer that said, “There is a battle going on in our schools. I will fight against the woke agenda trying to indoctrinate our children.”

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The election results also came in late Tuesday on Franklin’s birthday as she celebrated with supporters and her husband at a watch party near downtown Conway.

Trey Geier

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Trey Geier, who defeated incumbent Bill Milburn in the race for the board’s Zone 5 seat, thanked voters as well late Tuesday.

“And now the work begins,” Geier, project manager at a roofing company, wrote on Facebook. “Thank you all for your trust. I promise to work hard for our teachers and our students, and I look forward to speaking with many of you.

“To Mr. Bill Milburn – thank you for stepping up to fill this seat, and thank you for your work. I know you care about our kids and hope you still stay involved in the district.
Conway, thank you for your trust. Let’s make it a better Conway for all of our kids and our futures,” added Geier.

Parents and teachers also were among the celebrants.

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Lynn Duran, who teaches in the gifted and talented program at Conway’s Preston and Florence Mattison Elementary School, said he believes “the election results were a victory for many teachers in Conway.”

“The election appears to have also demonstrated a means to a possible end of partisan politics in school board elections,” Duran, who has taught for 24 years, said in an email. “The flyers sent out by one particular incumbent were disheartening to many teachers. I have to believe that while anyone who serves in a position on the school board means very well, that maybe sometimes the politics of a party overwhelms or pressures a candidate to conform beyond a comfortable social boundary. I feel Conway teachers work very hard to provide the best education we can for all of our students, and I believe the approach by the state’s Republican Party failed.”

Citing campaign finance reports, the Arkansas Advocate reported that Cunningham received $2,900 from the Republican Party of Arkansas, $1,000 from Faulkner County Republican Women and $500 from the Faulkner County Republican Committee. According to the Advocate, the Faulkner County Republican Committee contributed $400 in cash and $824 in advertising to Milburn’s campaign. Milburn also got $750 from Faulkner County Republican Women and $2,900 from the Republican Party of Arkansas, the Advocate reported.

“Campaign finance records show Geier and Franklin did not receive money from a political party, but they did pay the Democratic Party of Arkansas for donor and voter data,” the Advocate reported.

Referring to Franklin and Geier, Duran said, “Two advocates with great calmness, staying steadfast to the concept that the greatest resource to our town’s future is to be cherished and nurtured, not stifled and shunned because of their differences, made the most impact on the most vulnerable and their families. I am happy for our kids today, they are the true winners.”

Angie Boyett Ryall, a special-education resource teacher at Conway’s Carolyn Lewis Elementary School, wrote on Facebook: “Thank you Conway for the BEST teacher appreciation gift EVER!!!!”

If you didn’t know, the elections took place during national Teacher Appreciation Week.

Heather Kendrick, who earlier this year resigned from the Conway School District where she had been the communications specialist for several years, was also celebrating.

Late last year, Kendrick said she had been “reassigned and relieved of almost all my duties as Communication Specialist.” She later went on leave, subsequently resigned and has moved on with her career and life.

Kendrick earlier this week urged voters to support Franklin and Geier.

“I know a LOT of teachers. I’m married to one. I spent the last 8 1/2 years telling the stories and communicating with families about the great things happening in [Conway Public School District] classrooms,” Kendrick wrote on Facebook.

Conway’s “teachers are NOT indoctrinating students. Period. Full stop.
Our teachers just want to teach and love their students. They want to help them make academic progress (on an individual basis) and keep them safe. That’s more than enough to keep every teacher I know working countless hours of overtime each week.
We deserve school board members who trust and support our teachers,” Kendrick wrote.

This morning, Kendrick thanked voters and reached out to others, including “our precious … students — every single child — you are ALL worth ‘Whatever it Takes” Every. Single. Day.” The “Whatever it Takes” was a reference to a school district logo.

Kendrick told teachers, principals, support staff and other school district employees that “you are seen, heard, and valued.”

“May this be the beginning of HOPE and a return to the Core Values of Conway Public Schools,” she wrote.

Kendrick’s remarks about caring for “ALL” students were apparently a reference at least in part to the school board’s decision in April to prevent transgender students from using restrooms aligning with their gender identity rather than the one assigned to the gender on their “original” birth certificate. As an alternative, students can ask to use a single-use restroom. The adopted policy appeared to be grandstanding as even the superintendent who supported it acknowledged the rule was already being enforced but just wasn’t in writing. No one has ever made it clear how the schools can check every student entering and leaving a bathroom, sometimes in a hurry.

At the same meeting, the board also voted to ban two books dealing with transgender issues but didn’t target a single book about cisgender heterosexuals.