A Memphis political action committee dedicated to improving economic and social mobility in Shelby County and across Tennessee poured nearly $40,000 into four Memphis-Shelby County Schools board races.

Candidates Rachael Spriggs in District 1, Tim Green in District 6, Amber Huett-Garcia in District 8, and Rebecca Edwards in District 9 each received an $8,300 donation from TN Prosperity PAC, according to recent campaign finance filings. The other two candidates for District 1, current board Chair Michelle McKissack and former Chair Chris Caldwell, each received $2,500.

A dozen candidates are vying for four openings on the MSCS board in Thursday’s election.

TN Prosperity PAC is affiliated with TN Prospers, a non-partisan organization under the umbrella of Seeding Success, a Memphis nonprofit that seeks to support children “from cradle to career.” 

TN Prospers is focused on issues such as increased pre-K funding and access, especially for low-income families; recruiting more STEM teachers; expanding computer science education; and exposing more students to postsecondary education and career and technical training early, according to its website.

TN Prosperity PAC also mailed fliers endorsing Spriggs and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, whom the fliers said would support strengthening pre-kindergarten and improving schools.

In an email, TN Prospers CEO Mark Sturgis said the PAC board invited all 12 MSCS board hopefuls — as well as candidates for Shelby County Commission and mayor — to complete a questionnaire, participate in an interview, and request support. The board decided who to support based on their responses and past performance.

Asked whether TN Prosperity endorsed any other candidates running for MSCS board, Sturgis declined to comment on specific races. He said the organization’s mission is improving economic and social mobility in the county and state, “not simply the election of specific candidates.”

Other groups spending on school board candidates include:

  • Memphis PACE, which is the political action committee for the Memphis Shelby County Education Association, the larger of two MSCS teachers unions.
  • The Leadership for Educational Equity PAC, a national nonprofit leadership development organization “inspiring and supporting a network of civic leaders to end the injustice of educational inequity,” according to its website.
  • Leaders in Education Fund PAC of Washington, D.C.

Thursday’s election comes at a pivotal moment for Tennessee’s largest school district.

An external investigation into whether Superintendent Joris Ray abused his power and violated district policies by engaging in relationships with subordinates has many Memphians wondering who will lead MSCS during the upcoming school year — and in the years to come.

Academically, the latest batch of state standardized test scores suggested Memphis students recovered some ground from the steep declines caused by the pandemic, but district officials say they’re not satisfied with the progress.

Meanwhile, the board is poised to lose at least two longtime members later this month: Billy Orgel, who isn’t seeking reelection, and Miska Clay-Bibbs, who is running for a seat on the Shelby County Commission.

Early voting has ended ahead of Thursday’s contest. Shelby County polls will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Election Day.

The final campaign finance filing deadline ahead of the election was July 28. Reports were to cover spending and contributions from July 1 to July 25. 

Chalkbeat reviewed all campaign finance filings as of Aug. 3. Below is a sampling of contributions to school board candidates throughout election season: 

District 1

  • Chris Caldwell received $4,800, including $2,500 from TN Prosperity PAC and $1,000 from Memphis PACE, which has endorsed him in the District 1 race.
  • Michelle McKissack garnered nearly $26,000 from about 50 donors, including $2,500 from TN Prosperity PAC and a combined $3,200 from two Hyde Family Foundation officials. Several fellow school board members also contributed to McKissack’s campaign, with Orgel donating $1,600, Kevin Woods giving $1,000, and Vice Chair Althea Greene chipping in $200. In addition, former Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and former board member Shante Avant each gave McKissack $250. McKissack also reported $3,500 of in-kind contributions to her campaign for consulting services and video production.
  • Rachael Spriggs raised the most money of any candidate, receiving just over $26,000, including a total of $16,600 from two PACS — the Leaders in Education Fund out of Washington, D.C., and TN Prosperity in Memphis — as well as smaller contributions from over 15 donors, several of whom are MSCS employees. Spriggs also received $3,400 in contributions of less than $100.

District 6

  • Charles Everett received about $3,100 in donations, including $500 from fellow board member Orgel and $200 from Greene. Everett also loaned his campaign $3,000.
  • Timothy Green garnered about $23,300, including $8,300 from TN Prosperity PAC, $150 from Gini Pupo-Walker of the Tennessee chapter of The Education Trust, and over $7,500 in contributions less than $100.
  • Kenneth Lee has not filed any campaign finance documents since appointing himself treasurer of his campaign in March, according to the Shelby County Election Commission’s website.
  • David Page raised and spent less than $1,000 this election cycle. Campaigns that receive and spend less than $1,000 are exempt from detailed disclosure.
  • The Shelby County Election Commission website shows Tiffani Perry has not reported any campaign donations or spending. Linda Phillips, the administrator for elections for the Shelby County Election Commission, said Perry attempted to submit campaign finance forms online ahead of the July 28 deadline, but an error prevented them from being submitted and they’re currently “stuck in the portal.”
  • Keith Williams received about $6,700 for his campaign, mostly from donations of $100 to $500 from current and retired MSCS educators. Williams also received a $250 donation from Harris, and about $1,600 in contributions less than $100. Memphis PACE, which endorsed Williams in the District 6 contest, also contributed $1,864 for signs, posters, and campaign literature.

District 8

  • Amber Huett-Garcia, who is running unopposed, raised about $24,800, including $8,300 from TN Prosperity PAC, $8,300 from the Leadership for Educational Equity PAC in Washington, D.C., and $1,500 from the Great Public Schools PAC in Nashville. Huett-Garcia also received $1,000 from Barbara Hyde, president of Hyde Family Foundation; $1,600 from Orgel, whom she will replace on the board; $250 from Cedrick Gray, education adviser to Shelby County; and $250 from Hopson.

District 9

  • Joyce Dorse-Coleman’s campaign has not filed any campaign finance documents since appointing Vivineese Robertson as treasurer in April, according to the Shelby County Election Commission’s website.
  • Rebecca Edwards raised $9,500 during her campaign, including $8,300 from TN Prosperity PAC and $1,000 from the Memphis Shelby County Education Association. Edwards has been endorsed by Memphis PACE, the group’s PAC.

The next campaign finance filing deadline, covering spending and donations from July 26 to Sept. 30, is Oct. 11.

Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at swest@chalkbeat.org.