Many of the yard signs throughout Carmel this campaign season have been a bit more crowded than usual, as two three-person slates of candidates have been campaigning for three seats in the Nov. 8 election for the Carmel Clay Schools board of trustees.
Both sides have made their core mission clear. Kristin Kouka, incumbent Jennifer Nelson-Williams and Jake Nichols want CCS to continue its current trajectory, while Jenny Brake, Greg Brown and Adam Sharp believe a change of course is needed.
Slates of candidates are not unusual in local elections, but in school board races – which are not partisan – it traditionally has been less common. This year, however, as school boards across the nation have faced increased scrutiny and criticism for their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, diversity initiatives and other matters, it appears to be happening more often, according to Andy Downs, director emeritus with the Michael Downs Center for Indiana Politics.
Downs said candidates typically run as slates for two reasons: Financial benefits, such as designing and producing one yard sign instead of three, for example, and a push for specific policy goals.
“Part of what’s happened (this election cycle) is people have decided they want to see very specific changes,” Downs said. “They recognize that one out of five or seven or whatever is the number of people on the school board in question is not going to be enough to make a difference.”
Support CCS continues mission
The slate of Kouka, Nelson-Williams and Nichols was selected by the Support CCS political action committee, an organization co-founded by Nicki McNally and other CCS parents and community members in late 2021 in response to Unify Carmel, a group that formed earlier that year and identified declining test scores and the district’s diversity initiatives among its concerns.
A spokesperson for Unify Carmel, whose tactics at school board meetings led to CCS temporarily suspending public comment and public attendance at them, said in 2021 the group’s goals included endorsing a slate of candidates in the 2022 school board race.
“It was very obvious they would be spending money in the next election to take over the board,” McNally said of the decision to form Support CCS.
Earlier this year, Unify Carmel became a PAC, which would allow it to endorse candidates, and changed its name to New Tomorrow. Since then, however, the group officially disbanded, according to the Indiana Secretary of State’s office.
Meanwhile, McNally said Support CCS leaders knew they’d back Nelson-Williams in her District 2 reelection bid and began speaking with residents of Districts 1 and 3 who were interested in running for school board, eventually settling on Kouka and Nichols to complete the slate.
Many qualified candidates who believed in the vision of Support CCS expressed interest in running, McNally said, but the PAC wanted to endorse a slate, in part, to reduce the chances of splitting the vote between them. She wanted to avoid a repeat of the 2020 school board election, when nine candidates ran for two at-large school board seats.
McNally, chair of the PAC, said each candidate endorsed by Support CCS is running his or her own campaign and that the PAC is providing volunteers and financial support – such as purchasing yard signs promoting all three candidates – beyond what they raise on their own.
“Our (PAC) funding has come all from individual donors,” McNally said. “People are trying to say that’s not the case, that we’re getting money from outside organizations, but these are all truly just parents that came together because we didn’t like what was happening in our community.”
According to Support CCS’ latest campaign finance report, which covers April 9 to Oct. 14, all donations the PAC received came from people with Carmel addresses. Individual candidates, however, received donations from donors outside of Carmel, including Jake Nichols and Jennifer Nelson-Williams.
The campaign of Brake, Brown and Sharp (BBS) is not directly backed by a PAC. Sharp, a CCS parent and retired emergency medicine doctor who is running in District 2, said he helped bring the slate together.
“I probably bear the responsibility for that perspective and that idea,” Sharp said. “There are three seats up, and it would make sense to work collectively with others who had complementary skill sets. Should we all be elected, I think it’s for the betterment of the board that we don’t all come from the exact same background.”
Sharp said approximately six months ago, through networking and word of mouth, he began connecting with several other people interested in running for school board. Having too many like-minded candidates run would be “like shooting yourself in the foot,” he said, so after much discussion, he partnered with Brake and Brown to form a slate running in support of an increased focus on academics and parental rights, among other issues.
Each candidate is accepting donations individually, Sharp said, and none has accepted donations from a PAC or other organized entity. Campaign finance reports show that most of the slate’s individual donors are from Carmel, although all three have financial supporters from other cities, as well.
Sharp denied that Unify Carmel/New Tomorrow or Moms for Liberty of Hamilton County, a group launched primarily by several people who split from Unify Carmel, is behind the formation or funding of the BBS slate, although he said individuals currently or formerly associated with them have assisted with the campaign and donated.
“Are there some people that may have affiliations with those groups who are doing things to proactively try to help us? Yeah, and they have every right to do that as a citizen, but there is no structured relationship between either of those groups and our campaign (as has been rumored),” Sharp said.
Sharp said another false rumor is that BBS aims to remove CCS Supt. Michael Beresford from his role.
“I have no intention of getting rid of Dr. Beresford as a primary goal of us winning a majority on the board. Absolutely not. He seems like a competent guy. I would love to work with him and see if he’s effective in his role,” Sharp said. “It is, for the record, the job of the school board to assess the superintendent, and down the road if he’s not effective in his role, it is the responsibility of the school board to act on that challenge.”
Besides the two slates running for school board, three candidates are running independent campaigns. Sheldon Barnes and Stephanie Flittner are running in District 1, and Lori Long is running in District 2.
While running as a slate has its advantages, Downs said, it also can be beneficial to run alone.
“If you basically have two warring factions that are going at it, and someone is not affiliated with either one of them – and that person also is a credible candidate – that person could benefit,” Downs said. “Voters will think, ‘There’s one person who’s not yelling at the other side.’”
Barnes, a father of four children who attend CCS, said it was his intention from the start to run an independent campaign because it allows him to focus on students, parents, teachers, administrators and the community rather than align with a specific agenda.
Barnes said he is the only CCS school board candidate who has attended events organized by county Democrats and Republicans, giving him a unique perspective. He said he only saw Support CCS candidates at events organized by Democrats and only saw the BBS slate and Flittner at Republican events (he said Long didn’t attend any of the events). McNally said she reached out to the Hamilton County Republican Party about Support CCS candidates appearing at their events but did not receive a response.
“On the issues, one slate will ‘support CCS’ or ‘support our school leaders’ to a fault, while the other slate ‘finds fault in everything’ our school leaders are doing,” Barnes said.
Flittner, the mother of two children in CCS, said a “big advantage” of running independently is she is able to speak only for herself, which aligns with her “No. 1 message” of teaching kids how to think, not what to think.
“While I appreciate that slates seem attractive to a few voters, they are inherently political. I’m a proud conservative, but I firmly believe that politics has no place in our school board elections,” she said.
Long did not respond to a request for comment.
Other forms of support
Direct campaign contributions are not the only way organizations can be involved in the Nov. 8 Carmel Clay Schools Board race.
The Hamilton County Republican Party is endorsing school board candidates for the first time this year, including the slate of Jenny Brake, Greg Brown and Adam Sharp in Carmel. It has hosted candidates at events, and it released an ad on Facebook supporting them.
Hamilton County Republican Party chair Mario Massillamany did not provide comment for this story as of press time.
Dayna Colbert, chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, said her party isn’t seeking out or endorsing school board candidates, although it has offered advice to those asking for it, as long as they haven’t officially aligned with the Republican Party.
“What would be best for Hoosiers is what’s going to be best for the kids,” Colbert said. “I don’t think that bringing partisanship into it is what’s going to be best for the kids and the students.”
Another organization, Free to Learn Action, launched a website that provides details about each candidate, including political party affiliation.
Free to Learn Action is affiliated with the Free to Learn Coalition, which describes itself as a “nonpartisan organization established to support parents, caregivers and community organizations in their advocacy for quality K-12 education.” It is led by Alleigh Marré, a Virginia mother and founder of a communications firm, whose LinkedIn account states she previously worked for several Republican politicians and committees.
Free to Learn did not respond to requests for comment on its interest in Carmel’s school board race.
Where to vote
Early voting is underway at several sites in Hamilton County. Voters from anywhere in the county can cast an early ballot in Carmel from 2 to 7 p.m. Oct. 26-27, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 28-29, 2 to 7 p.m. Nov. 2-3 and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 4-5 at Mercy Road Church, 2381 Pointe Pkwy., and the Jill Perelman Pavilion, 3000 W. 116th St.
On Election Day, voters must cast a ballot at their designated precinct site. Learn more and see a list of locations at hamiltoncounty.in.gov/226/Polling-Locations.
Those who cast a straight-party vote must still select school board candidates in each race individually, because school board candidates do not declare a party when they run.