New Conway school board members said they focus on unity and transparency

"I Voted" stickers sit on a table, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, at the Cambridge City Hall annex, on the first morning of early voting in Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
"I Voted" stickers sit on a table, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, at the Cambridge City Hall annex, on the first morning of early voting in Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

The two newest board members for the Conway School District will take their seats for the first time in next month's June 13 meeting.

Challengers Sheila Franklin and Trey Geier Tuesday celebrated their successful efforts to unseat incumbents Jennifer Cunningham and Bill Milburn.

Cunningham is the board's vice president and held the at-large position.

Milburn was appointed to the Zone 5 seat after Scott Champlin resigned from the post in September.

Unofficial returns for the at-large board position were:

Sheila Franklin4,160

Jennifer Cunningham3,301

Jess Disney28

With all polling sites reporting, unofficial returns for the Zone 5 board position were:

Trey Geier660

Bill Milburn547

"I am so excited to start working in this capacity for the children in the Conway District, the educators, administrators, and the entire staff," Franklin said in an email Wednesday. "I look forward to serving them all and this awesome community that so many of us are honored to call home."

A Conway native, Franklin's campaign was dedicated to getting the school district back to where it needs to be, she said. Her desire to run for the position increased after the incident earlier this year with her daughter LaShanta Johnson, a coach for the district at the time. Earlier in the year, a directive from the board prohibited Johnson and other coaches from wearing "Celebrate Black History" shirts.

Franklin said the hurt she saw in her daughter and in the community after the episode only fueled her desire to make a difference on the board.

"My heart is here in Conway and in the Conway public schools. I know that we are a long way from where we need to be and where we have been, but I know that we can get back there," Franklin said in March.

Headed into her new role on the board, Franklin said her goal is to bring the focus back to academic excellence. She also reiterated her compassion for educators and their well-being.

"I have a passion for educators, and it hurts my heart to hear leaders talking about how our teachers are indoctrinating our students," Franklin said. "They are educating our students, and it's an insult and slap in these professionals' faces to speak anything different. They are overworked and underpaid, so why would anyone think they had the time to do anything but teach?"

According to her campaign website, Franklin worked for 28 years as a juvenile probation and intake officer where she "served as a positive role model to juveniles while also enforcing discipline, accountability and good conduct."

She also worked for two years as a teacher in the federal Head Start early childhood education program."

"We don't get to decide who we serve, but we do decide how we serve them," Franklin said in her email. "I can promise I will serve ALL of them well. I truly believe that we should treat people the way we want others to treat us. I can promise I will serve this great community with integrity and dignity."

Cunningham was first elected to the board in 2018.

Board members face re-election on a five-year rotating basis. Franklin will hold the at-large position until she faces re-election in 2028.

"Again, I want thank everyone who has supported me and allowed me to support you," Franklin said. "I will also support those who didn't vote for me -- because I serve you all."

Jess Disney was also running for the at-large position but took to Facebook in April to urge Conway voters to support Franklin.

"It is my belief that Sheila Franklin will be the right choice to serve on our school board, and I urge you to vote for her on election day," Disney wrote. "With Sheila Franklin on the board, I am confident that our schools will have leadership that will help students thrive and provide our students with the high-quality education they deserve."

However, leading up to election day, Cunningham's latest re-election campaign highlighted her desire to continue to "fight against the woke agenda trying to indoctrinate our children."

"There is a battle going on in our schools," Cunningham shared in an ad for her re-election campaign. "When we found sexually explicit books available to children in school libraries, I voted to remove it to protect children. When biological males (who identify as female) were staying overnight on school trips, I voted to stop it and protect our children."

Her Facebook post also reiterated her support for the restroom ban passed by the board last fall that prohibited transgender students and faculty from using the restroom they identify with.

"I voted for a common sense bathroom policy to ensure everyone uses the bathroom of their biological sex or a single occupancy bathroom," she said. "I'm asking for your vote tomorrow to ensure our children have a safe district that educates, not indoctrinates."

Attempts to reach Cunningham on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Geier will also make his first appearance as a member on the board at the April meeting.

On Wednesday, Geier expressed his eagerness to begin working for the district and community.

"I just can't say enough about everyone that helped," he said. "It was the community speaking, and speaking loudly."

Geier is a father of three who said he moved back to Conway to raise his kids in the district after serving in the Army.

Over the last several months, he ran a campaign dedicated to eliminating the board's "hyperfocus on divisiveness."

"Inclusion and decorum shouldn't be on the ballot, it should be understood," Geier said.

He also clarified that he will have to run for re-election in one year, not five, to get the election rotation for Zone 5 "back on track" after Champlin's retirement.

"I have to run again in a year to get the Zone 5 seat back on the timeline it should be," he said. "I hope the community continues to be involved in the school board."

Geier added that his goals for the next year are clear.

"I hope that we're able to work together." Geier said. "I am just one person, just like Sheila is, just like everyone on the board is. We have to work together, but we have to work in the right direction. And that should be pointing to the teachers and the students instead of trying to exclude people or interject our personal values into them."

Geier cited community concerns with the board's lack of transparency and referenced the continued use of the administration building for monthly meetings.

"That's something that's huge, and there are only 35 people that are allowed in the room right now," Geier said. "That's something that needs to be fixed. There are at least three rooms that house over 150 people. Really, what I want to ask is that we move the board into those spaces until only 35 people are at the board [meetings.]"

Attempts to reach Milburn were also unsuccessful Wednesday.

Milburn is a retired police major in Conway and was appointed to the board, by the board, to fill the Zone 5 seat until the end of the school year following Champlin's retirement in the fall.

He faced early criticism in his time on the board after he wrote "I can't deny that all actions have consequences, some of them eternal" when asked about the public speaker that wished death on LGBTQ people.

Superintendent Jeff Collum and Board President Andre Acklin Wednesday congratulated the new board members and said they were grateful for the outgoing members' contributions.

"I sincerely appreciate both Mrs. Cunningham and Mr. Milburn for the time, hard work and dedication they have given to this district," Collum said. "I also look forward to working with Mrs. Franklin and Mr. Geier in the future. We will continue to work together as a board and superintendent 'Team of 8' to serve the needs of our students."

Acklin shared similar words for both parties.

"I would like to thank Jennifer Cunningham and Bill Milburn for their service," he said in an email. "I would like to congratulate Sheila Franklin and Trey Geier on their election to the Conway School Board of Education and I look forward to working with both of them. Although this has been a challenging year, I am encouraged and confident that our Superintendent Dr. Jeff Collum and school board will continue to work together in the best interest of ALL STUDENTS!"

Continuing with the board's election structure, the current rotation shows:

Trip Leach will face re-election in 2024.

Acklin will face re-election in 2025.

Linda Hargis will face re-election in 2026.

Both David Naylor and Jason Sandefer will face re-election in 2027.

Correction: An earlier version had the incorrect date for the next board meeting.

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