Cohort of business leaders fuel two school board candidates’ campaigns

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Chris Caldwell (left) and Roshun Austin (right) listen in at community forum for Shelby County Schools candidates on July 14. Many of the same business leaders have donated to their two campaigns, totaling nearly $20,000 each.

A group of Memphis business leaders and their spouses have financially fueled the campaigns of Shelby County Schools board candidates Chris Caldwell and Roshun Austin, according to financial documents submitted by both candidates in recent days.

Of the 24 donors Caldwell listed, 18 of them gave the exact same amount of money to Austin. For example on June 16 Charles Burkett, the president of First Tennessee, gave $1,000 to Caldwell and also gave $1,000 to Austin.

Of the $23,950 Caldwell raised and the $23,000 Austin raised, the same 18 donors contributed more than $19,000 to each candidate. They include mostly CEOs and presidents of Memphis-based companies, which are members of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce. The companies include local giants such as Fed Ex and  AutoZone, as well as smaller companies such as Baker Donelson and Jordan Enterprises. The Chamber of Commerce’s JOBS Political Action Committee also donated $3,000 to both candidates after an interview process.

The Chamber of Commerce has played a larger role in local politics in recent years.  It is currently under fire by police and firemen for the its endorsement of the city’s pension and health care reform plan.

The upcoming school board election is hotly contested in several districts, especially in Districts 1 and 9, where Austin and Caldwell are running. Shelby County Schools will face several major challenges under the new board, as they transition their focus away from merging two districts toward competing for students with six new municipal school districts, as well as charter schools and the Achievement School District.

Money raised for the campaign is used to pay for candidates’ political strategists and advertising campaigns. It also allows them to hire poll workers and purchase campaign signs.  The limit for school board race donations is $1,500 for individuals and $7,400 for Political Action Committees.

The other school board candidates’ fundraising has apparently not kept up. None of them have raised more than $3,000 between April and June, according to the current financial disclosures listed on the Shelby County election commission’s website. Seven of the other candidates’ disclosures are currently not posted, so it’s unclear how much money they’ve raised.

Caldwell and Austin chalked up the extent of their shared donors to coincidence.

“In Memphis, although it’s a big city, it’s a small town,” said Austin. “The same people have interest in the same things.”

She said many of the shared donors are connected to the Hyde family. J.R. and Barbara Hyde each gave the maximum amount allowed for an individual, $1,500. “The Hydes have a very big interest in education,” Austin said.

Caldwell said that he wasn’t sure why there was so much overlap because his campaign manager, Brian Stephens, handles his finances.

“I wasn’t invited to whatever event happened to raise the money,” said Caldwell. “The people that were the ones that I contacted, they were the smaller donations.”

Caldwell said it’s possible that his and Austin’s shared funding base is connected to the fact that they’ve both hired Caissa Public Strategy, a political consulting firm that Stephens works for. But he said his donors will not influence his decisions as a school board member.

“Other than sending thank you notes, I’ve never had any conversation that would be the kind of thing that there were any kind of expectations for donations,” said Caldwell. “And I’ve voted my conscience every time.”

But the donations are essential to support his campaign. “I have ordered my yard signs, I have a phone bank, I’ll have poll workers, I’ll have mailings and possibly a robocall,” said Caldwell. “It’s mainly name recognition and trying to differentiate yourself and, in my case, trying to let people know how hard I worked and the kinds of things I’ve helped the board accomplish.”

One of the 18 donors, Daniel Richards — an accountant whose wife, a vice president for FedEx, also donated to the race — donated $1,000 to each candidate. He said he prefers to keep his motives private.

“My wife and I reviewed a bunch of candidates and we thought they would do a good job,” Richards said.

Read Roshun Austin’s disclosure form here:

Read Chris Caldwell’s disclosure form here:

Read the disclosure forms of the other candidates that have been released here:


call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”