In Tennessee’s first partisan school board elections, candidates in key races address issues

Williamson County matchups feature incumbents against newcomers to politics

By: - July 18, 2022 7:00 am
Franklin High School (Photo: Williamson County Schools)

Franklin High School. Battles between parents and school boards have been heated in Williamson County. (Photo: Williamson County Schools)

In Williamson County, candidates are competing in hotly contested school board races, representing how divisive politics have become around teachers and students. 

Last year, Gov. Bill Lee signed into law a bill allowing political parties to nominate candidates for school board races, which were previously nonpartisan elections.

The bill followed a series of clashes between Republican lawmakers and local school leaders over COVID restrictions, including vaccine mandates and mask requirements.

Williamson County parents clashed with one another and with the Williamson County Schools (WCS) administration over COVID policies, critical race theory, vaccines and other pandemic-era topics.

On July 8, the parent advocacy group, Parent’s Choice, filed a lawsuit against WCS Superintendent Jason Golden, Assistant Superintendent Dave Allen and state Commissioner Penny Schwinn over Wit & Wisdom, a state-approved school curriculum the group claims is promoting inappropriate topics about race for elementary school children.

The winners of WCS board races face many challenges over the next few years, including staffing shortages, learning delays resulting from the pandemic, navigating the state’s new school funding model (Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement) and political issues. 

The Tennessee Lookout contacted candidates from two of the most competitive and contentious school board races, out of six school board races in the county,  for their take on navigating school politics. 

District 10: 

Incumbent Eric Welch (Republican) faces Jennifer Haile (Democrat) and William Holladay (Independent).

Eric Welch

Welch, an account director for a consumer market research firm, was elected to the board in 2010, lost in 2014 and re-elcted in 2018.  He has campaigned on increasing funding for Williamson County schools, improving teacher retention rates and parental opt-out policies for certain school curriculums.

District 10 candidate

Q: What is going on in this race? What makes this school board race special?

WelchThis race is a clear contrast in goals and backgrounds between the two candidates: myself and Holladay.

I’m focused on students, and what needs to be done to provide them a world-class education that they can build a successful future on. Holladay is focused on social media hot-button issues that really aren’t applicable to Williamson County Schools. I want to serve the school district and our students, while he wants authority over the district to promote his own agenda.

My children attended and graduated from Williamson County Schools. Holladay’s children attend school in Metro Nashville and a small private school; and he has never had a child enrolled in the district. In fact, it’s questionable if he’s ever set foot inside a WCS school building.  He did have his student enrolled at Poplar Grove for Kindergarten, but up until a few weeks ago he was unaware that this was a separate district and not WCS. (Editor’s note: Poplar Grove Elementary School is part of the Franklin Special Schools District.)

I’m a longtime parent-volunteer in our schools and have served in numerous leadership roles, including the (parent-teacher association) and several Booster Club Boards. Holladay has stated that his biggest volunteer effort for the district is “running for office.”

I’m an experienced member of the board of education who has served on numerous committees, has hundreds of hours of professional development experience; and a fixture at our district’s academic, athletic, and arts events.  Holladay has attended just one monthly school board meeting since filing to run for the board of education, and that one he left early.  He has not attempted to meet with the superintendent or anyone else in the central office, so he is not only unprepared and unknowledgeable about the role and responsibilities, but he has shown no interest in learning what is required.

I’ve been endorsed by dozens of our (parent-teacher association) presidents, former school board colleagues, WCS senior staff, parent-leaders, and local elected officials that care deeply for the success of our schools and given generously of their time in supporting them. Holladay brags of his support by activists from Davidson County with connections to our school district and would need to use Google Maps to locate one.

I celebrate the hard work and success of our teachers and students, like our recently released state-leading (Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program) scores.  Holladay not only refuses to acknowledge their successes but has repeatedly promoted false rumors and outright lies that denigrate those accomplishments.  Where I seek to build up Williamson County schools for the benefit of our students, families, and community at large, he seeks to tear it down.

I believe that our students and teachers should be treated with kindness and respect and have worked for that goal.  He has claimed students have a free speech right to use racial slurs like the N-word inside school buildings without punishment, has referred to our professional educators as “groomers” and even called for the arrest of a WCS librarian on the radio.

Last August, Williamson County schools became national and global news as we witnessed a near-riot take place in the parking lot outside the board of education meeting. I view that event as a low-point in our public discourse and ability to strongly but respectfully disagree.

– Eric Welch, Williamson County Schools Board Member, District 10

Essentially, I’m running for re-election because I’m invested in the success of Williamson County schools and want it to remain the best in Tennessee.  He is seeking the office to have power over the school district that he’s never been a part of, has never supported and actively and openly roots against.

Q: How have the events of the past few years changed school board elections? 

Welch: Unfortunately, boards of education have not been spared from national political polarization and we’re witnessing more individuals that are seeking power over the schools so they can promote their own agendas at the expense of the next generation.  Last August, Williamson County schools became national and global news as we witnessed a near-riot take place in the parking lot outside the board of education meeting.  I view that event as a low-point in our public discourse and ability to strongly but respectfully disagree. Holladay, by contrast, has bragged on the radio of his participation in that event and sees it as a badge of honor and something to be emulated.

Q: On your campaign page, you support parental rights in opting kids out of certain materials while also recognizing that schools ultimately have the right to determine instructional materials for students. You also note that non-school groups should not have authority over library book removals. Elaborate?

Welch: This is consistent with long-established WCS Board of Education policy.  

The curriculum we use in our district is a state approved curriculum that was selected by our teachers and parents.  Every teacher in the appropriate grade and subject area was given the opportunity to review and make a recommendation from all of the available curriculums, and they recommended what we currently use a 3-to-1 margin.  This recommendation was then passed along to a selection committee made up of one veteran teacher and one engaged parent volunteer from each of our elementary and middle schools.  That committee recommended our current curriculum by an 8-to-1 margin.  The results speak for themselves. Not only have our TCAP scores improved in every grade level where that new curriculum is being used, but we have also caught back up and even exceeded our pre-pandemic TCAP scores.

We recognize that opinions can and will vary and in accordance with our board policy, parents have the right to opt their students out of any book or other material they find unsuitable, for any reason.  This is done with no questions asked and without penalty to the student, who is provided with an alternate text or coursework.  Our parents overwhelmingly have chosen not to do this though, with 99.6% of them not opting out of any classroom materials or books.

We also provide a process in WCS school board policy that any member of our community can request a review and reconsideration of any classroom materials to ensure that they are content and age appropriate.  But that policy also states that we support the principles of intellectual freedom inherent in the First Amendment, that we choose materials for the enlightenment of all students in the community, that they present many points of view on the problems and issues of our times, and that no parent, group of parents, or non-school group has the right to determine the instructionals materials for students other than their own children.

We firmly believe in the individual rights of the parent.  But when an individual, or group, attempts to decide what another child can or cannot read, it robs the rights of that child’s parents.

Q: How do you plan on navigating these divisive politics that have centered around schools?

Welch: The same way I’ve always done, putting my focus on the needs of our students inside the classrooms.

William (Doc) Holladay

Holladay, an optometrist, has not held public office before but said he was inspired to campaign after removing his daughter from Poplar Grove Elementary School in Franklin, fearing COVID masking policies and school materials would harm her.

District 10 candidate

Editor’s note: Poplar Grove is a part of the Franklin Special School District, not Williamson County Schools.

Q: What is going on in this race? What makes this school board race special?

Holladay: Williamson County is a very conservative country, but the school board has largely been operating in a manner that runs counter to the conservative principles that most people who live here hold dear.  It’s a very important leading county for Tennessee, and to a large degree, the way Williamson County goes is how the whole state eventually goes.  Because of that, many people feel that it’s been targeted by liberals who want to flip Tennessee blue. I agree with them.  

I think our educational system in particular has been taken over by those who want to push liberal political ideology onto our children and ultimately change the political landscape of our great state.   

My opponent, who claims to be a Republican, is actually anything but. He was endorsed by the Democratic party for his 2014 school board run, is backed by “Williamson Strong,” which is the most radically far-left PAC in the area, and has voted with the left and for liberal agendas at every turn.  He’s actually defrauding the conservatives in our county who think that by pressing the “R” button that they’ll be getting an actual conservative, which I personally find to be dishonorable and reprehensible.  In this race, if voters want an actual conservative, they’ll need to vote for me, the Independent candidate. 

Q: How have the events of the past few years changed school board elections?

Holladay: Obviously, school boards have become a focal point and are on the frontline of the battleground of ideas here in America. 

The polarization of political views has especially created a divide in how we want to educate and raise our children.  The left has held the steering wheel of  public education for decades now, and look at what that has produced in our schools: Marxism, socialism, grooming our kids in gender ideology, pornographic material in our libraries, divisive & racist curriculums like (Critical Race Theory), “white privilege,” “guilt training,” vilifying our founding fathers and our country, untold psychological and developmental damage from useless masking, a massive push to jab them with potentially harmful experimental gene therapy drugs and an effort to divide them ideologically from their parents.  

Historically, I believe most people didn’t pay much attention to school boards and other local elections.  That’s no longer the case. Parents have awakened to what’s really going on and they are concerned and they are angry.  People don’t like it when you hurt their children.  The question becomes “whose children are they?”  Are the parents the primary authority in their children’s lives and education, or is it the “state?”  I believe it should be the parents, and that we need to get the school boards back into their lane, which is to educate children in academics and prepare them for the real world rather than to use our schools as political indoctrination centers. 

Editor’s note: Critical race theory is not taught in K-12 public schools and does not attribute racism to white people as a group or individuals but refers to U.S. social constructs that led to inequality among minority groups, according to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization. 

Holladay mentions “experimental gene therapy drugs,” which is a reference to false beliefs about the COVID vaccine. The vaccines do not change genes and do not stay in the human body for more than a few days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Historically, I believe most people didn't pay much attention to school boards and other local elections. That's no longer the case. Parents have awakened to what's really going on and they are concerned and they are angry.

– William Holladay, candidate for Williamson County Schools Board of Education, District 10

Q: I read through your campaign page and wondered if you could elaborate on why you think there isn’t enough transparency between Williamson County Schools and parents?

Holladay: I’m largely reflecting what parents and teachers have told me regarding their experiences, in addition to my own observations. People have seen the board do things under the table, such as how they pushed “white privilege training” onto the teachers recently.  Nobody really knew about that until a teacher went public and there were some FOIA-type requests.  We have a huge problem with teachers leaving, and they either won’t do exit interviews, or if they do, they won’t provide them to the public to see exactly why the teachers are leaving.  That speaks volumes.  

Another thing is these committees they select to determine things like the worthiness of our curriculum, or whether certain materials are inappropriate etc., somehow always seem to be selected in a way that produces the outcome they wanted in the first place.  Many see it as stacking the deck.. i.e., “we have investigated ourselves, and cleared ourselves of all wrongdoing.”. We need transparency on where the (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief)  funds went.  Personally, I’d like to see a full audit of that, among other things. 

Editor’s note: Holladay referred to the group, the “cultural competency council,” who successfully urged Williamson County schools in 2019 to include diversity and inclusion training. The group received backlash from the community and school board members for using the term “white privilege.” 

Q: Also, what negative effects do you think COVID policies had on schools and students?

Holladay: The negative effects of how Covid was handled are massive, and we’ll probably be dealing with them for years. As I mentioned earlier, the untold psychological and developmental damage from useless masking is hard to even quantify. I’m sure we’ll see the negative impacts of doing that for a long time.  

I believe forcing our kids to mask is straight-up abusive. Obviously, remote learning doesn’t hold a candle to in-person learning, and our children were basically robbed of at least a year of socialization and in-person instruction.  

They were taught to fear other human beings, and even worse, were taught that fear was actually a virtue.  It conditioned them to accept being dehumanized and to have a gun-shaped device aimed at their heads to check their temperature in order to enter the school.   

There was, and still is, a massive push to jab them with potentially harmful experimental gene therapy drugs, which multiple studies have confirmed provide little to no benefit while exposing children to some highly unacceptable risks. And this is all for an illness that statistically has less chance of killing them than getting struck by lightning. 

It’s madness, it’s unacceptable, and that’s why I stand firm for the parents having the right to choose which medical decisions are right for their children. They aren’t the state’s children, or the school board’s children. They are our children.  If a parent wants to subject their children to the pointless abuse of masking or take the risk of jabbing them with an experimental gene therapy, then that’s their right and it’s on them. But likewise, parents who do not want to participate in those things have an equal right to choose not to do it. 

Editor’s note: The COVID-19 vaccine, which is currently available for children aged six-months and older, is safe and effective at keeping children from developing severe complications if exposed to the COVID virus, according to the CDC.

Jennifer Haile

Haile worked as a college educator, teaching American government and political theory at multiple universities, including the University of Memphis. 

District 10 candidate

Q: What is going on in the race?

Haile:  Each school board race, in my opinion, is unique and worthy of voter participation. However, this is the first partisan school board race for the county. This (in) fact will provide interesting, and contested, discussions along political lines. School board members should expect to deal with issues involving the pandemic and cultural battles with respect to course curriculum, along with “normal” issues such as budget setting and setting policy. Voters will want to make sure they are electing officials who are well versed in education, open minded and able to do what is best for the diverse community that will be served. The results of this race are crucial;  it will provide encouragement, or discouragement, for other states to participate in partisan school board elections.

Q: How have the events of the past few years changed school board elections?

Haile: Teachers are now tasked with re-engaging students after the relatively recent re-opening of schools after the pandemic. School board members must encourage, and support this transition. This could include ensuring that students are receiving additional support from paraprofessionals, encouraging parent participation and supporting teacher salary increases.  Further, as I’ve noted, teachers are now in the middle of a contentious battle regarding teaching curriculum involving race, gender and inequality.  We must trust teachers to practice their craft and we must rely on the guidance provided by the Tennessee Department of Education on this issue.  

Q: Could you elaborate more on how you plan to encourage topics on race, gender and inequality?

Haile: Race, gender and inequality, “CRT” as I understand it, simply does not exist in the K-12 curriculum. What we are talking about is the discussion of the human experience.   I think if we approach discussions of race, gender and equality as an issue involving fairness, kindness and understanding, we remove political agendas.  Of course, any curriculum must be age-appropriate and reviewed by parties who are knowledgeable about the subject; but the answer is not to pretend it does not exist and/or fail to adequately prepare our students for a diverse world.

District 12: 

Incumbent Nancy Garrett (Independent) faces Drason Beasley (Republican).

Garrett, a lifelong resident of Williamson County and a national knowledge leader for a global professional services organization, had regularly attended school board meetings when Susan Curlee resigned from her position as District 12 school board member in 2016 after her comments about school board officials and local groups garnered criticism. Curlee alleged that then-Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney had used his position to influence the 2014 school board race.

District 12 candidate

Following Curlee’s resignation, Garrett campaigned and was elected to serve Curlee’s remaining two years.

Her father, William Nelson, was a chemistry and physics teacher in Williamson County and taught for 36 years at Franklin High School. 

Q: What is going on in this race? What makes this school board race special?

Garrett: What’s interesting about this race is that it it is the first school board race after the majority of the State Legislature voted to make Tennessee school board races “permissive primaries” – that is, counties can hold partisan primaries if one of the local parties wants to do so. Out of 95 counties, 59 are holding the primaries.

Although I am a consistent voter who never misses an election and have cast most votes as a Republican since I moved back to Williamson County in 1994, I have chosen to continue to run as a non-partisan candidate.

I believe that Board Members should hold themselves accountable to the same standard that we set, by policy, for our teachers: non-partisan service to all students and families. We serve all students, and therefore should put students first in our decision-making.

Running as a non-partisan candidate has made my race much more challenging, but I have no regrets in continuing the tradition of non-partisan public service to all our families. I have the work ethic to support my non-traditional run, because I’m passionate about the excellent work of our professionals.

Q: How have the events of the past few years changed school board elections?

Garrett: The societal polarization that we see related to public education issues is challenging. I will say that most people I have talked to over the past two years, and in the past several months of campaigning, are in the middle on these issues. That’s encouraging, as we can’t move forward without people being willing to work together for the greater good of all.

There is significantly more money being funneled into the school board elections. I’m concerned that these seats will now be seen as political stepping-stones, rather than a local place for service by people who are public school advocates. I’ve been told by one of my fellow board members that “that train has left the station.” I sure hope not; it’s to the detriment of our district.

I believe that Board Members should hold themselves accountable to the same standard that we set, by policy, for our teachers: non-partisan service to all students and families. We serve all students, and therefore should put students first in our decision-making.

– Nancy Garrett, Williamson County Schools Board member, District 12

People who might consider running for school board are likely put off by the level of vitriol they have seen directed toward school board members, administrators and teachers, both publicly and in private social media groups set up to unseat board members. Disagreeing with decisions of the board is one thing, but sending anonymous letters, name-calling, and threatening behaviors could be considered off-putting by those who don’t have nerves of steel or a deep commitment to our excellent public schools.

I think institutional trust, including in our local public schools, has been impacted negatively during the past two years. There are a variety of reasons for this — many people have moved to Williamson County during the pandemic and aren’t familiar with our schools, the concerted efforts by national groups to misrepresent what goes on in our schools and the impact on families, among others. I hope that community members will participate in the district’s efforts on our strategic plan in the upcoming academic year. Make your voice heard!

Editor’s note: In August 2021, a group of anti-mask protestors harassed WCS School Board attendees as they left a school board meeting. Doctors and nurses attending the meeting asked the board to reinstate the mask mandate. 

Q: You were chosen to finish the last two years of Susan Curlee’s term, after her resigned. What were some of the most difficult moments while serving on the school board?

Garrett: Yes, by a vote of 17-7 county commissioners, including my own commissioner, Steve Smith, I was chosen to complete the unexpired term of my predecessor. 

By far, the most difficult time has been the past two years, when I was elected as board chair by my fellow board members during 2020-2022. My work as board chair has been all-consuming and intense, given the complexity of the issues and the variety of stakeholder viewpoints and concerns, all the while balancing my work and family responsibilities. 

The work of a school board member in current times isn’t casual and requires intensive preparation and scheduling. If a person can’t make it a priority, it’s not a good fit.

Q: If re-elected, how will this experience influence your time on the school board? 

Garrett: I will continue to put students first in decision-making through non-partisan service to all students, which aligns with the Williamson County School Board code of ethics, the will of most constituents I’ve talked to during this campaign and the legislative vote of my state representative, Sam Whitson. And I’ll continue to work tirelessly for our students and families. I can’t imagine more important work.

Drason Beasley (Photo:
Drason Beasley (Photo:

Drason Beasley

Beasley moved to Williamson County in 2004 and served as a member of the Tennessee Juvenile Court Services Association, a Davidson County committee that oversees the juvenile court system. He also served as Williamson County’s juvenile public services coordinator.

Beasley did not respond to questions before publication.

On his campaign page, Beasley said critical race theory can lead to indoctrination and encourages removal of books from libraries deemed inappropriate. 

He also seeks to increase awareness of learning disabilities after his son was diagnosed with dyslexia.

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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.