Source: Williamson Herald

By Kerri Bartlett

The newly formed Williamson Business Political Action Committee (PAC) launched Wednesday to “protect the county’s greatest economic asset” – its public schools.

Williamson, Inc. announced the formation of the business PAC that will focus on supporting Williamson County Schools and school board candidates who meet the PAC’s objectives in the upcoming Aug. 7 elections.

PAC Chairman and spokesperson Dennis Norvet, senior vice president of operations at Skanska USA Building Inc., said that the decision to focus on the August 2016 school board elections stems from the business community’s desire to protect the county’s educational resource, or Williamson County Schools, which directly affects the business community. Norvet also serves as a board member for Williamson, Inc.

“One of the major reasons that businesses relocate here is because of the high-achieving school system, and protection of that asset is critical to our growth,” Norvet said.

He is concerned that recent “distractions” from the Williamson County Board of Education could adversely affect the business community in attracting new businesses.

“It had been discussed in the chamber for some time, and through guidance of several members of the chamber, we decided that [forming a PAC] would be the best way to go,” Norvet said.

However, the Williamson Business PAC is separate from, or not legally bound by, the Williamson, Inc. chamber and will have distinct boundaries in terms of governance and financing, Norvet emphasized.

Although the PAC will not focus on specific individuals, such as giving endorsements, it will contribute to candidates’ campaigns which meet the PAC’s objectives such as staying student-focused, embracing diversity, showing commitment to public education and promoting harmony.

Threat of Looney leaving leads to action

The idea for organizing the PAC, Norvet explained, reached its precipice last summer when Williamson County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney considered the position for director of schools in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

“It was the upheaval that occurred when Dr. Looney was considering leaving Williamson County for the Davidson County position that was the spearhead of the entire process and our decision on why we needed to get involved,“ Norvet said. “Business leaders saw the overwhelming support from parents, teachers and citizens who did not want to see Dr. Looney leave.”

Last summer, Williamson, Inc. rallied around Williamson County Schools by issuing a public statement in support of Looney, while President and CEO Matt Largen spoke during public comments at a school board meeting in support of Looney’s leadership.

“We realized the potential of losing him as superintendent would cause a void of strong leadership that could affect the reputation and quality of Williamson County Schools,” Norvet said.

“As an organization with a strong partnership with Williamson County Schools, we understand and recognize these results do not happen overnight and do not happen by accident,” said board member Nelson Andrews, owner and general manager of Andrews Cadillac/Jaguar/Land Rover Company.

A media release Wednesday by Williamson, Inc. states that recent school board headlines have overshadowed the success of Williamson County Schools and could put its reputation at risk, affecting the business community.

“I think it has become an issue, and I think it’s something that we need to address,” Norvet said.

Since 2014, the Williamson County Board of Education has been riddled with controversy ranging from lawsuits to some board members publicly speaking contrary to board business, as well as participating in heated debates during school board sessions and through social media.

“As the chamber goes through economic development activities, questions are raised about ‘what’s going on with the school system.’ It is being asked in some respect by CEOs and individuals responsible for companies coming to Williamson County,” Norvet said.

PAC campaign objectives

Norvet outlined objectives that the PAC will focus on during the 2016 school board election.

“Our focus is on those board members who are interested in putting the student first and making sure it is not a self-serving role,” Norvet said.

Other issues that draw concern from the PAC include how to keep up with growth in the school district; funding schools and traffic congestion; and how those issues relate to the overall economic picture of the county.

Other objectives also include “to understand, appreciate and embrace diversity as a source of strength,” “to recognize the importance of great public schools as it relates to economic development” and “to promote a sense of harmony that will unify the community.”

Members of the PAC will pursue discussions with school board candidates on issues and help them with their campaigns.

Norvet said that in the future a consultant might be used in the process.

He added that he would like to see a higher voter turnout in Williamson County.

“The goal of the PAC is to raise the level of engagement from our members and business community at-large,” he said. “Starting the PAC gives us that opportunity to get more active in the political process. We would like to see a much higher voter turnout for the election in August.”

During the August 2014 County General Election, about 20 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.

“It also boils down to the individuals who are our neighbors and our children, our friends and associates and employees living here in the community, who share the insight that this [public school district] is something important to them, and to protect that asset is critical in continuing our success as a county.”

A voice in the business community

Mostly, the PAC will serve as a “clear, united voice” for the business community.

At the annual Williamson, Inc. meeting last fall, Largen said that a goal of the organization as part of its six-point strategic plan is to become a “force in the region” as an advocate for the business community and a go-to source for legislative affairs that affect business.

Norvet shared that the business PAC has a goal of raising $50,000 and is “over halfway there.”

“The funding would be to assist those candidates that we believe expand our goals and to assist them in their campaign,” Norvet said. “For some of them, this is the first time that they would be involved in a public election, and we would provide assistance and knowledge.”

Although the PAC, Norvet said, will not take a position on current state legislation, it has a charter and has the ability to expand to the state level, though its first focus is the local WCS school board election.

Norvet said that responses from the business community about the PAC have been positive.

“It was very strongly supported by the business community, both by chamber members and individual friends in the business community,” Norvet said.

The current members of the PAC board of directors also include treasurer Bryan Echols of Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis; secretary Mark Celveland of Hobby Express; and Paula Harris of Barge Waggoner Sumner & Cannon, Inc.

The PAC board of directors will be selected on an annual basis by the chamber executive committee on recommendation of the vice chairman of the chamber board.

According to the media release, the Williamson, Inc. president and CEO is not an officer or board member of the Williamson Business PAC but will be an inetgral part of PAC activities such as fundraising.

When asked how he would respond to some who might criticize the business PAC for getting involved in a nonpartisan school board election, Norvet said that the business community has a vested interest.

“The business community has an obligation and vested interest — as community leaders and parents ourselves — to be involved in Williamson County Schools,” Norvet said. “We are simply responding to a need that has been expressed time and time again from our members to support our school systems and to support school board members who exemplify servant leadership.”

For more information, see http://www.williamsonpac.org/