The left-of-center Strong Schools movement that’s caused so much friction in Williamson County also exists in nearby Sumner County, and that iteration takes credit for increasing the property tax 23 percent.
As is the case in Williamson County, members of the group, which reportedly has union ties, insult anyone who disagrees with their platform or their tactics, Sumner County resident Kurt Riley said.
Riley said he has three children in the Sumner school system.
“In my opinion this is nothing more than a group that advocates for tax increases,” Riley said.
Riley said he belonged to Strong Schools of Sumner County’s Facebook page, but administrators kicked him out for failing to kowtow to their agenda.
“They gave us the largest tax increase in Sumner County history, and they stifled debate. If you were a dissenting voice on their Facebook page then they stifled your voice and eventually banned you. If you don’t agree with them then you’re an in idiot as far as they’re concerned.”
Tennessee Watchdog made countless efforts to reach every member of the group’s leadership through their personal Facebook pages, their homes, their places of employment and through the group’s website and Facebook page.
No one, including Outreach Director Sybil Reagan, Executive Director Andy Spears and Donor Relations Director Zoe Doyle, returned those messages this week.
“We may not agree with each other,” Riley said, “but I don’t hate them, and I don’t want to see their families harmed or their reputations tarnished.”
Sumner County investigative reporter Neil Siders frequently criticized the group through his website, Everything Hendersonville.
One recent Everything Hendersonville story says two members of Strong Schools crossed the line in attacking Siders.
The article did not elaborate.
The two Strong Schools members cited in Siders’ story did not return several requests for comment this week.
Siders said his attorney advised him to say little about personal attacks via a parody website called Anything Hendersonville.
“Anything Hendersonville targeted me and the first page took articles I did and spoofed them, but they said heinous things about me and my family and people connected to me and insinuated some nasty sexual things about me,” Siders said.
“People take shots at reporters, especially investigative reporters, but when they bring family and friends into it is when I got upset. My girlfriend is a nurse, and she has nothing to do with politics. Why does she have to be humiliated just so some group can accomplish their political goals?”
Siders said the website’s creator is anonymous, but he traced it to its source and learned that person was a prominent member of Sumner Strong.
Siders confronted that person.
“This person confirmed creating it and later admitted to it on Facebook,” Siders said.
Siders said he decided against taking legal action.
“It’s been handled,” Siders said.
“I’ll let it slide for now.”
In a 2014 Huffington Post article, Reagan said Strong Schools in Sumner County has 4,000 members and raised $10,000 for 13 local candidates for office in a recent election, all of whom won.
The group, Reagan went on, was started because the school system needed more money.
That same year the Tennessean credited Strong Schools with influencing county commissioners to raise property taxes an additional 23 percent.
Exactly $70 million of that was to go to school construction and renovation, and an additional $20 million was to go to the county’s economic development efforts, according to the Tennessean.
The $70 million that went to schools paid for renovations, new buildings and teacher salaries, said Sumner County School Board member Nancy Glover.
The Tennessean quoted county taxpayers who said they had no idea a tax increase was coming and that there was little public notice.
“I don’t know how they can say they were caught off guard unless they just haven’t been paying attention,” Glover said.
“We had just cut ourselves to the bone and cut and cut and cut. It was painful and hurting our programs. To cut more would be terribly inefficient.”
Riley said Strong Schools is “very well organized.”
“These are not stupid people. They are very smart. They are very slick. I don’t know who is pulling the strings up here, but they don’t do stuff willy nilly,” Riley said.
“They act like like this group was spontaneous, like they created it in someone’s living room and it organically grew. It could be the truth, but I don’t believe it. I believe someone planned and organized this and got people in different areas of the state and country and said we will execute this plan.”
Members of the school board, including Superintendent Del Phillips, fall right in line with Strong Schools’ agenda, Siders said.
The Sumner County School System did not return messages seeking comment this week.
Glover, though, said she and other board members embrace Strong Schools.
“Most people are appreciative because they were able to get some folks elected to the county commission, which helped us out a whole lot,” Glover said.
Some of the group’s 4,000 plus members, Siders said, might not fully understand the cause in which they’re involved.
“There are some misguided parents that really buy into this notion of better education and don’t understand it’s a political organization,” Siders said.
“You will also find a great deal of people who resent what they’ve done and their attitude and the way they dealt with the citizens.”
Contact Christopher Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org
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