JCPS school board challenger gets big boost from independent group
A first-time candidate for the Jefferson County school board is getting what his opponent calls an “obscene” amount of advertising support from an independent organization funded by prominent Louisville business people.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A first-time candidate for the Jefferson County school board is getting what his opponent calls an “obscene” amount of advertising support from an independent organization funded by prominent Louisville business people.
Election finance reports show the Bluegrass Fund has spent $272,187 on TV, radio and mailer ads supporting Fritz Hollenbach, a 62-year-old former manufacturing company executive who is trying to knock off incumbent Chris Brady for the school board seat representing District 7 in southeast Jefferson County.
The expenditures include $216,000 in TV time, according to a report filed with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance on Sept. 27.
The group’s TV ad promoting Hollenbach’s candidacy ran several times during the World Series.
“We are just interested in good school board candidates,” said real estate developer David Nicklies, the Bluegrass Fund’s chairman and one of its biggest contributors. “(Hollenbach) is a former teacher and school administrator and has a huge resume in corporate and leadership training. I think he would bring great knowledge and voice to the school board.”
But Brady, who was elected to the seat in 2012, said he believes a “small group of multi-millionaires” behind the Bluegrass Fund see Hollenbach’s candidacy as a way to promote charter schools in Jefferson County.
“That is a crazy amount of money … I think you’ve got to really wonder what it is they are trying to accomplish,” he said.
But Nicklies said the group’s aim is simple: “We want smart, unbiased people that will make the best decisions to educate these kids.”
It is the state legislature – not the school board – that would need to act to allow charter schools in Kentucky, but the JCPS board is officially against charter schools and has lobbied the legislature on the issue.
In an interview Thursday, Hollenbach said Brady has “purposefully distorted” his position – which is that he is “willing to listen” to charter-school proposals but would oppose “privatizing public education” or turning over schools to for-profit companies.
While he has not communicated with the Bluegrass Fund, Hollenbach said the group is likely drawn to his experience in education and business, including managing budgets.
“Their focus, as I understand it, is they want to have candidates for school board that have a well-rounded background,” he said.
The Bluegrass Fund was formed in 2012 and first made an impact by spending more than $66,000 in a successful bid to elect Chuck Haddaway to the board, as WDRB reported in a Sunday Edition story in 2014.
Besides Nicklies, the fund’s backers include Humana co-founder David Jones Sr., the father of JCPS school board chairman David Jones Jr., and members of the Louisville family that controls Brown-Forman Corp., among others.
Prior to the Bluegrass Fund, the only other traditional player in school board races was the Jefferson County Teachers Association and its political action committee, Better Schools Kentucky.
The union is backing Brady and has posted at least one interstate billboard to promote him off I-71 south entering downtown.
But as of Thursday, Better Schools Kentucky’s reports on file with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance showed only $143 spent to support Brady, for “voter file info.”
The group’s latest quarterly report shows several contributions to state House candidates, but no contributions to school board candidates. Better Schools Kentucky had $405,840 on hand as of Sept. 30, according to the quarterly report.
Better Schools Kentucky chairwoman Mary Thurman, a teacher, said Thursday that the group would not discuss its political spending until its reports are “finalized,” which is after Tuesday’s election.
Brady said he does not know how much the union is spending on his behalf because it is acting independently of his campaign.
There are two other school board races on the ballot Tuesday, but state reports show the Bluegrass Fund has been active in only the Hollenbach-Brady contest, which also includes two other candidates.
The Bluegrass Fund raised just over $101,000 during the current election cycle, compared to $273,250 in the months leading up to the 2014 election, according election finance reports. The group also carried over $191,000 in unspent funds from the 2014 cycle.
This year’s funding came in only three contributions: $75,000 from Charles Insurance Company – a business owned by Nicklies; $25,000 from Stock Yards Bank and $1,000 from Creation Gardens Inc. owners Ronald and Mollie Turnier.
Nicklies said the group’s goal is to raise and spend about the same amounts that it did in 2012 and 2014.
“I would think we would continue to stay the course,” Nicklies said.
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