In the past decade or so, campaigns for seats on the Jefferson County Board of Education could best be described as sedate. In fact, contested races have been rare.
But on Tuesday, in a campaign that was anything but quiet and waged largely on social media, incumbent board President Oscar Mann prevailed in a race for Place 3 against challenger Jake Ware.
With 109 out of 110 boxes reporting, the incumbent from Gardendale defeated the challenger from Hueytown, 9,461 votes (54.1 percent) to 8,017 (45.9 percent). Mann’s victory in the Republican primary gives him back his seat, as he is unopposed in November.
Mann didn’t wait up for the results and was unavailable for comment Tuesday night. Ware said the race finished about as he expected.
“I thought it would be neck-and-neck. One of those sprint-to-the-finish deals,” Ware said late Tuesday night. “This was my first time jumping into the ring. I’ve learned a lot. There were a lot of people that wanted a voice and a seat at the table. At the end of the day, we did everything we could. I wish Oscar Mann nothing but the best.”
Mann, a retired JefCoEd teacher and principal from Gardendale, already had gone through a bit of a struggle when leaders of his hometown tried to break away from the county system — an effort led in part by Mayor Stan Hogeland, one of Mann’s best friends. But that paled in comparison to this race, which actually focused very little on Mann himself except in Gardendale, but focused more on Superintendent Craig Pouncey.
Superintendents in Alabama, whether they are appointed by a board, as with JefCoEd, or elected rarely interject themselves into political races unless they are on the ballot as well. But Pouncey made an unusual move when he publicly endorsed Mann and fellow board member Dr. Martha Bouyer, who faced a challenge from Robert Mardis III in the Democratic primary.
The JefCoEd boss set up his first-ever Facebook account just before announcing his endorsement. Pouncey then tried to engage Ware directly on the challenger’s campaign Facebook page. Ware apparently deleted Pouncey’s posts soon after they appeared, or at least Pouncey accused him of doing so.
Ware, 27, is a recruiting advertising sales person for Advance Media Group and the son of Hueytown Mayor Steve Ware. A first-time candidate, Ware has been critical of JefCoEd in several respects, including the system’s longtime practice of scheduling most monthly board meetings during morning hours. He also has contended that security at schools is insufficient, as are the supply of textbooks.
Shortly after the superintendent’s endorsement was posted, several JefCoEd principals chimed in with endorsements of their own, sometimes combined with criticism of Ware. Clay-Chalkville High School Principal Michael Lee took Ware to task for his age and experience level. Pam Dennis, principal of Oak Grove High School, and Brad Robertson, principal at Bragg Middle School in Gardendale, endorsed Mann and Bouyer on Facebook. Additionally, a post last weekend from the Fultondale Elementary School account endorsed Mann and Bouyer and was shared by a Mann supporter, but it apparently was removed shortly afterward.
Ware has also been linked to board member Donna Pike, who has publicly supported the challenger in social media. Mann supporters have accused Pike of accepting large contributions from political action committees when she ran for election in 2016 campaign.
Pike’s race in 2016 was one of the rare contested races for the board. She won the seat over Ronnie Dixon in a primary runoff. Dixon, however, was appointed soon after to fill a vacancy on the board created by the death of then-President Dean Taylor.
During this election, Pouncey contributed $500 each to the campaigns of Bouyer and Jackie Anderson-Smith, who has served on the board for 30 years but ran this year for Jefferson County Circuit Clerk. If she wins that post, she will vacate her JefCoEd seat, and a replacement will be appointed by the remaining board members.
Anderson-Smith was the top vote-getter in Tuesday’s Democratic primary among a field of nine candidates. She received 25 percent of the vote and will face a runoff against Eyrika Parker.
Pouncey’s unusual move may be motivated by self-preservation. Two months before the election, the board renewed his contract, but the vote was divided. Mann, Bouyer and Dixon voted in favor of renewal, Anderson-Smith voted against, and Pike abstained. If either Bouyer or Mann were defeated, the balance of power on the board may switch and Pouncey could find himself out of a job despite the recent renewal. There’s recent precedence for that kind of action; Pouncey’s predecessor, Stephen Nowlin, was bought out of his contract in its second year after board members became disenchanted with his management style.
Pouncey has been criticized by opponents for his multiple attempts to win appointment as state superintendent of schools. He has been a candidate for the position three times, twice during his JefCoEd tenure; he was defeated by one vote on the nine-person state board each of the last two times.
Bouyer easily won her primary and will face Republican challenger Eddie Brown in the general election.