A political action committee funded by a handful of wealthy Louisville business people has bought over $351,000 worth of advertising to elect a candidate in just one local school board race, according to records from the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.
The Bluegrass Fund committee has spent this enormous sum on TV, radio and print advertisements to support the candidacy of Fritz Hollenbach, who is running to unseat one-term incumbent Chris Brady in District 7 of the Jefferson County Board of Education, which covers much of southeastern Louisville. According to the latest KREF filings, neither candidate’s campaign has spent over $10,000 so far.
Created in 2012, the Bluegrass Fund has provided a political counterbalance to the Jefferson County Teachers Association, the teachers union that has long been the most dominant force in local school board elections. While its exact policy goals and criteria for candidates have remained unclear, Brady has joined another incumbent the committee previously targeted for defeat by claiming it is a stalking horse to push for charter schools in Jefferson County.
Bluegrass Fund increases political spending as some question its motives
In 2012, the Bluegrass Fund spent $125,000 on two school board races, with most of that money supporting the victorious Chuck Haddaway in the District 4 race. Their ads depicted Haddaway as a candidate who would push to end busing and create “neighborhood schools,” though Haddaway stated at the time that he supported the JCPS student assignment plan.
That trend continued in 2014, when the Bluegrass Fund spent $188,000 on candidates in three local school board races, one of whom — Lisa Willner in District 6 — won. Some of the $86,000 worth of ads for Richard Brown — the District 5 candidate they pushed the most — stated he “thinks it’s time to end busing — now!” However, Brown also claimed to support the JCPS student assignment plan.
Brown lost that year to incumbent board member Linda Duncan, who voiced her suspicions that Bluegrass Fund donors had a plot to push for charter schools. Local real estate developer David Nicklies, who created and chairs the Bluegrass Fund, said in 2014 that this was not the case, as its only goals were to get better people on the school board and make sure it spends tax dollars in the best way. Nicklies also has stated in the past that the local teachers’ union — which is strongly opposed to charter schools — has too much power. The Bluegrass Fund has no website, with its IRS filings only stating that its mission is “to promote and advance an agenda that will positively change the direction of the commonwealth of Kentucky, in order to compete with its neighboring states.”
The Kentucky General Assembly would have to pass a law to allow charter schools to be formed — as most neighboring states have done — but Republicans were hopeful in both 2012 and 2014 that they would win a majority in the state House and make that a reality. Republicans fell short of that majority in both years, but many observers expect they will finally reach that goal in next week’s election. Along with the strongly supportive administration of Gov. Matt Bevin, such a Republican legislative majority would make the passage of charter school legislation all but certain in 2017.
Since its inception, the Bluegrass Fund has received contributions from a small number of Louisville’s most prominent business people, the largest amount of $250,000 coming from David Jones Sr., the founder of Humana and major funder of Republican causes. Bluegrass Fund co-founder and treasurer Sandra Frazier — a director of Brown-Forman, owner of Tandem Public Relations and large donor to candidates in both parties — and her mother Jean have given $125,000 to the committee in the past. A pro-charter group created by Hal Heiner, who was appointed by Bevin this year to secretary of the Education Cabinet, donated $8,000 in 2012.
Nicklies and organizations he runs had given $108,000 to the Bluegrass Fund in past years, and he contributed $75,000 more in late September. Stock Yards Bank has contributed $50,000 over the past year, including $25,000 in October.
In addition to the $351,000 spent to support Hollenbach in his race this fall, last week the Bluegrass Fund for the first time spent money on advertising for non-JCPS school board races. The committee spent over $100,000 on ads supporting three Republican state House candidates in closely elected contests around the state, including $60,000 in TV ads for Rep. Denny Butler in Louisville’s District 38. Nicklies also personally gave the maximum $1,000 contribution in October to four different Republicans candidates in other parts the state with hotly contested House races that Republicans need to win in order to take back the majority in that chamber.
The Bluegrass Fund has never spent any money to either support or oppose local school board chairman David Jones Jr. — the son of David Jones Sr. — who is running for re-election next week.
Neither Nicklies nor Frazier returned a voicemail and email from Insider Louisville seeking comment for this story.
Though JCTA’s endorsements, political spending and canvassing continue to be a major factor in local school board races, the latest KREF filings show that its Better Schools Kentucky committee — representing teachers unions around the state — has not yet contributed or spent money on advertisements for incumbent Brady, who the group endorsed in the District 7 race. Much of the teachers union’s considerable political spending has gone toward Democratic candidates running for state House and a Super PAC running ads to elect them.
Bluegrass Fund and charter schools a topic in District 7 candidate forum
When asked about independent spending by outside groups in a recent candidate forum for the District 7 school board race, Brady was quick to criticize opponent Fritz Hollenbach over the Bluegrass Fund’s advertisements supporting him.
“He got endorsed by a group that is pretty much represented by 5 to 7 multimillionaires,” said Brady, adding that its donors are people “who wouldn’t even send their kids to our schools.”
Hollenbach said that money in politics is a fact of life and “I don’t control what people say about me,” as voters are the only endorsement that counts. He said he hopes to represent both teachers and parents on the board, as well as “all those citizens who don’t have kids in school, but see that tax bill every year, and they wonder where that $1,400 or $2,000 go to. That’s the vote that will matter on Nov. 8.”
When the candidates were asked if they support charter schools, Brady said he did not and called this “publicly subsidizing private education,” once again mentioning the Bluegrass Fund and saying it is all about bringing charter schools to Jefferson County and privatizing education.
Hollenbach challenged Brady to provide any evidence that “this so-called cabal of millionaires is designing for charter schools,” then added that 43 states allow charter schools and Kentucky is very likely to join them soon.
“I think we can’t just bury our heads and say ‘they’re bad bad bad bad bad,’ when we see that the tide is saying there’s something out there,” said Hollenbach. “I think we need to be open to what’s happening.”
Hollenbach said that while the NAACP doesn’t support charters, “there are a lot of folks in the West End that I talk to that are very, very anxious to see that their failing schools have an alternative. And frankly, if I was in one of those schools, I sure would be looking for some alternatives, too.” He added that he is not a ‘rah rah’ charter school person and would only promote such a school if it operated as a nonprofit.
Hollenbach was formerly a teacher and assistant principal with the Archdiocese of Louisville in the 1980s, and then moved to Wisconsin in 1987 to work for a large manufacturing firm where he eventually became vice president. He recently moved back to Louisville and founded his own consulting firm.
The main part of Hollenbach’s platform is to change the third grade reading “pledge” of JCPS to a “guarantee,” saying students are not served well by passing them to higher grades when they do not yet read on that level. He says he wants JCPS to focus less on administrators and more on teachers, and his candidacy is endorsed by the Greater Louisville Building Industry Association and The Courier-Journal.
Brady is endorsed by the local unions of JCPS teachers and staff, as well as the Fairness Campaign. In his campaign he has touted his work to help disadvantaged students who live in poverty, pushing for more funding to go toward family resource centers, mental health counselors and after-school programs.
Former principal of Eastern and Jeffersontown high schools James Sexton also is running in the District 7 race, which he lost to Brady in 2012. He has pledged to vote against any proposed tax increase, support neighborhood schools and bring more police officers into schools. Sexton touts an endorsement from socially conservative Frank Simon of the American Family Association of Kentucky.
S. Scott Majors, an account manager at Advanced Solutions, is also running for the District 7 seat but has mounted a non-existent campaign.
Disclosure: Sandra Frazier and David Jones Jr. are both investors in Insider Louisville.