A decision on Williamson Strong’s appeal of fines for political activity will be issued by an administrative law judge between now and March 23, says John Allyn, an attorney for the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.
Williamson Strong is a parent group started in 2014 that is said by conservative critics to be a sophisticated operation acting politically in favor of progressive-leaning school board candidates and policies.
In May 2015, the registry agreed with some of the accusations about political activity and issued the group two $2,500 fines, the first for failing to file a form for appointing a treasurer.
“This is required of any entity that makes expenditures in support of or in opposition to a candidate for public office,” Allyn told The Tennessee Star. “The registry found that Williamson Strong came within this definition. Williamson Strong obviously disagrees.”
The second $2,500 fine was for failing to file campaign financial disclosure reports. Because that requirement is dependent on Williamson Strong being found to be a political action committee (PAC), any action on the financial disclosure reports is deferred until there is a final ruling on whether the group is a PAC, Allyn said.
Former conservative school board member Susan Curlee filed a complaint about Williamson Strong with the registry in December 2014 over concerns about the way the group presented candidates in the 2014 school board race. In the decision to issue the fines, the registry cited emails between Williamson Strong and school district officials that reflected collaboration as to which candidates to support. The registry also cited the group’s advocacy on its Facebook page and its purchase of voter data and technology licensing fees for efforts to support or oppose candidates.
Williamson Strong, which has filed a related federal lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s campaign finance laws, has steadfastly denied endorsing candidates or making contributions. The group promotes itself as a non-partisan local group created to “make it easier for public school parents and community members to access information essential to supporting, preserving, and advancing excellence in public school education in Williamson County,” according to the group’s mission statement on its website.
However, Curlee and other critics have maintained that Williamson Strong is part of a political union-influenced national effort to stifle grassroots conservatism and promote a progressive agenda. Williamson Strong’s motto of “Strong Schools, Strong Communities” is part of a catchphrase promoted by the National Education Association (NEA). Also, Susan Drury, one of the five lead team members of Williamson Strong, works for the liberal-leaning Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Despite its claims of simply being a vehicle for providing community members with information, Williamson Strong routinely adopts an opinionated tone on its website, sometimes a strident one.
Since Curlee filed her complaint, Williamson Strong has continued to portray grassroots conservatives in a negative light, derisively referring to “Tea Party drama” in a July 2016 blog post on its website. The post discussed candidates for the 2016 school board election and identified which ones were endorsed by the Tea Party and the 9/12 Project, a group created by television radio personality Glenn Beck, and which ones were endorsed by business conservatives. “Local businesses are focused on home values, community reputation, and an ability to recruit and retain quality professional employees who want to move here,” the blog post said. “They view school quality and reputation as a part of Williamson County’s economic success and believe the Tea Party drama of the last two years detracts from that.”
Earlier, in December 2015, Williamson Strong mocked efforts by conservatives to draw attention to concerns about unbalanced Islam-friendly lessons on religion in public schools. Williamson Strong criticized a town hall on the topic in a blog post titled, “Your Guide to the Anti-Muslim Holiday Inn Hatin’ Hootenanny.”
Williamson Strong has also taken heat for unabashedly promoting Superintendent Mike Looney. A quote by Looney is currently featured prominently on the homepage of the Williamson Strong website. It is critical of excessive testing, a concern shared by those across the political spectrum, but also includes a reference to social justice, a popular progressive slogan. The quote says, “Instead of testing we should be focused on understanding how kids really learn, social justice and access to technology.”