Conservatives claim Conway School Board seats

Conway High School (photo by Ronny Willhite, Creative Commons)

All three candidates who campaigned as “strong conservative voices” won election to the board of the Conway School District Tuesday.

School board races in Arkansas are nonpartisan, meaning candidates do not run under any political party’s banner. Nothing, however, prevents them from describing themselves as conservatives, liberals, moderates or even apolitical.

Reflecting a national trend, the board races were politicized along ideological lines more than any in Conway in recent memory. Three of the candidates ran as a team, with their campaign materials all sharing the words “strong conservative voices.”  One candidate, Linda Hargis, also described herself as a “patriot.”

Those defeated did not run on any partisan labels but clearly diverged from the conservatives on social issues.

The unofficial results, complete except for some provisional ballots yet to be counted, according to the Faulkner County clerk’s office:

Zone One

Amy Ferdowsian 1,060

Jason Sandefer 1,287

Zone Two

Dr. David Naylor Jr. 2,008

Carrie Tinsley 1,098

Zone Three

Diane Robinson 1,069

Linda Hargis 1,185

Candidates for the other zones ran unopposed except for Zone 5, which had no candidate. The incumbent did not file for re-election, and a person who did file later withdrew, county Clerk Margaret Darter said. That will leave six board members unless the one who didn’t file, Scott Champlin, agrees to stay on the board.

Lucas Harder, policy services director for the Arkansas School Board Association, said that under Article 19, Section 5 of the Arkansas Constitution, the board member is to
remain in office until his successor is elected and qualified. That person then is “treated as if they’re elected to a new term,” Harder said.

Under Arkansas Statute 6-13-608, a person can serve only one full term as a “holdover” before he or she must run for re-election or leave office, according to Harder.

If that person doesn’t want to stay in office or can’t do so and leaves the board, he or she can submit a resignation and the board will have 30 days to appoint someone to serve a one-year term, Harder said.

The winners will be sworn in after votes are certified Friday.

The Conway school district has a total of 9,818 students, according to its website.

Janine A. Parry, a political science professor and Arkansas poll director at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, said Wednesday that one reason all three “conservatives” won is that “primaries tend to attract more partisan folks or the strongest partisans, so that’s going to be one of the consequences of changing school board elections to coincide with all the partisan positions.”

“We’re going to get higher turnouts, but those folks also are going to be more partisan also by definition. That’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s going to change the character of the average voter” in a school-board election, Parry said.

But with vote totals in locally zoned races already relatively small, “it’s just not hard to mobilize a couple dozen extra people or a couple hundred and change the outcome of the election,” Parry said. “It’s not that hard to upend these things.”

Because of state legislation approved in 2017, school board races in Arkansas now must take place either at the same time as general or preferential primary elections, or, in non-election years, on one of those equivalent dates. In the past, they were in September and generally had low voter turnouts.

Name recognition can always be a big election factor and might explain why Naylor, a physician who’s part of an established family medical practice in Conway, won by a bigger margin than did the other two conservative candidates.

“A familiar name rises to the top as one of the … clues people will use when there aren’t other clues on the ballot,” Parry said. “If you’re already a well-established person or have the same last name as a well-established person, that’s going to work to your benefit.”

Further, Naylor got his name in education circles months ago. In January, he was among 13 Conway physicians who signed a letter urging the school board to allow protective masks to be optional, not mandatory, during the pandemic. The board voted 6-1 to require masks, in line with a recommendation from a group of other physicians and the president and chief executive officer of Conway Regional Health System. The mask mandate has since ended.

Further, without using the word “masks,” Naylor also evoked their image in his campaign announcement published in Conway’s The Log Cabin Democrat last month when he said, “I believe, after the last 2 years of a pandemic, it would be beneficial to have a physician on the school board.”

Unlike some other physician offices in Conway, the Banister-Lieblong Clinic where Naylor works no longer requires masks.

Naylor did not return a phone message seeking comment on an earlier article previewing the election. Asked if he would like to comment Tuesday night for this article while he was at the courthouse to hear election results, he indicated he preferred to wait.

Hargis, a former teacher and school administrator, posted a statement on her campaign Facebook page Tuesday night thanking her supporters.

“It’s been an eye-opening journey to say the least.” she wrote. “I will do my best to represent the values that you have entrusted in me!! I will work hard for the schoolchildren entrusted in our care as a school district.”

Sandefer, a Conway businessman, did not reply to a Facebook message seeking comment.

Even after losing her re-election bid, Diane Robinson continued her habit of posting positive news about students and faculty on a Facebook page she devotes to school board matters. On Wednesday, she posted videos of one of the district’s employees of the year and of the District Teacher of the Year, Hailey Carr.

And early Tuesday evening, just before Robinson posted the results of absentee and early voting, in which she trailed, Robinson, a senior court research associate who has
worked as a child advocate, took time for a far more important message relating to the Texas school shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead.

She wrote: “Our core value: maintain a safe and caring environment. At the end of the day, parents expect their children to come home from school safe and sound. What
happened in Uvalde today …would be unimaginable, if we hadn’t seen it before. We heard one of the Sandy Hook parents speak at a National School Board Association
conference and she said your safety strategy cannot be: Not Here.

You cannot assume it won’t happen in your district. That’s why we’ve made safety improvements, both in terms of 'hardening' the entrances to our schools and having
detailed response plans specific to each of our campuses. It also includes making sure we identify and get services for students with mental health problems. Parents, if you
have guns in your home, do not assume that your children don’t know where they are or how to access them. Make sure.”

This story is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.

The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.