Bentonville school board election garners attention of national conservative group

Only one incumbent is seeking re-election

headshots of Jennifer Faddis and Gail Pianalto

Incumbent Jennifer Faddis (left) defeated Gail Pianalto in the Bentonville School Board Zone 2 election.

In a Bentonville School Board election with a dozen candidates seeking five positions, Jennifer Faddis stands out: she’s the only incumbent running.

The seven-member board restructured itself last year, creating two at-large positions and five geographic zones. Previously, all seven members represented specific areas. The at-large members are not up for re-election. 

Faddis joined the board in 2020 and said in a phone interview that she wants to represent Zone 2 because the board needs some consistency and she still has work to do.

“This is a calling that I feel God has placed on my life and he hasn’t told me to quit, so I’m going to keep doing it as long as I’m supposed to do it,” she said.

Gail Pianalto is also running for the Zone 2 position. She responded to the Advocate’s questions by directing a reporter to her Facebook page for information. Pianalto did talk about her positions on the issues at an Oct. 4 candidate forum, where she said she is running because she cares about children.

Why they’re running

Bentonville School Board Candidates

Zone 1: Joel Dunning, Erron Smith

Zone 2: Jennifer Faddis, Gail Pianalto

Zone 3: Jeremy Farmer, Blanca Maldonado, Matthew Smith

Zone 4: Becky Guthrie, Tim Rosenau

Zone 5: Tatum Aicklen, Yoselin Bolivar, Letisha Hinds

As a mother of three Bentonville West High School students and two graduates, Faddis said she’s in tune with the district’s needs. Faddis’ connections to the district as a parent and board member as well as her rational thinking make her a good candidate, she said.

“I am a Christian, conservative mom who is a rational thinker and someone who is not going to jump at every scare tactic that is thrown before me,” she said. “I will look at decisions that are before me and make a rational, calm decision on it.” 

The licensed counselor has supported bonuses for district employees and wants to increase teachers’ pay. She also wants to expand the Ignite Professional Studies program, which allows students to explore career fields like technology, construction management and culinary arts. 

Faddis said she’s proud to have pushed for a more user-friendly website and app that launched this year. Communication is something that can always be improved, she said, and finding ways to streamline communication, especially for parents with multiple students, can be very beneficial.

Pianalto said during the Oct. 4 forum that one of her primary goals if elected is to improve the district’s standardized test scores in math, reading and science. 

“Hiring and retaining excellent teachers is primary in raising student academic performance, so addressing key factors such as salary, working conditions, job satisfaction and opportunities for advancement are a high priority,” she said.

The retired nurse said she volunteered for five years with Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Northwest Arkansas, prior to the pandemic. The nonprofit provides volunteers for abused and neglected children in the foster care system, according to the organization’s website.

“I want every child to be given the tools to overcome whatever challenges they face,” she said.

Pianalto also wants to expand the Ignite program because not every child has the desire or finances to attend college, she said.

Working toward greater transparency and maintaining a focus on “fair and sensible spending” are additional objectives for Pianalto who said asking questions ensures responsible spending and promotes transparency for taxpayers.

“Transparency requires that board members ask questions, the questions that they know that their constituents would ask if they were to be given a voice at the decision-making table,” she said. 

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National influence

Although school board elections are nonpartisan, conservative political action committee the 1776 Project has endorsed five candidates in the Bentonville School Board election, including Pianalto. The other candidates are Yoselin Bolivar, Joel Dunning, Tim Rosenau and Matt Smith.

The endorsements are an example of a national trend of conservative groups influencing local school board elections with money and endorsements.

The 1776 Project has endorsed nearly 50 candidates in eight states and spent $2.7 million from April 2021 to October 2022, according to campaign finance filings

Pianalto said via social media that she’s “honored” to have the 1776 Project’s  endorsement; however, she has not received money from the group.

Faddis said national organizations should not become involved in local school districts because school board positions are nonpartisan, volunteer roles.

The 1776 Project wants to abolish Critical Race Theory from public schools and is working to elect school board members who want to reform the education system “by promoting patriotism and pride in American history,” according to the group’s website. 

CRT theorizes race is a social construct, and that racism is not just a product of individual prejudice, but something embedded in legal systems and policies, according to an Education Week article. The basic tenets emerged from a framework for legal analysis in the 1970s and ’80s.

Major social issues like gender identity, sexuality or CRT should be addressed at home not at schools, Faddis said. 

Board restructure

Last November, the Bentonville School Board voted unanimously to restructure itself, to have five members each represent a zone and two at-large members.

Residents can vote for their zone’s representative and the two at-large members. 

Kelly Carlson and Willie Cowgur were selected as the board’s two at-large members after drawing names from a bucket.

After November’s election, all members will draw to decide when they will be up for election next so their terms will be staggered. Board members typically serve five-year terms. 

The board also had to redraw zones to equalize population density as required by Arkansas law. The 2020 Census showed population growth had led to an uneven distribution among the zones.

“If you are teaching anyone to look at race as a determiner of your position in life and your station and the opportunities that you have had in the past or the opportunities you have presently and define it by race, that’s a problem,” she said. 

However, Faddis said, it is important to teach the country’s history and “very inappropriate” to whitewash that history to what people think it should have been. For example, Faddis said it was “appalling” that she didn’t learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre until a few years ago.

Historians estimate as many as 300 people died over the course of two days in 1921 when white rioters looted and burned Tulsa’s predominantly Black Greenwood District.

“Looking at race problems or atrocities that happened to certain racial groups I think they need to be addressed, but that’s not what CRT’s doing,” Faddis said. “It’s not a curriculum, it’s a philosophy.”

On her Facebook page, Pianalto said she does not support the teaching or training of CRT. During the candidate forum, Pianalto said parents “have the God-given authority” to make decisions affecting their children’s education and health, and they should play a larger role in choosing books and curriculum in schools.

“There are boundaries that public entities such as states and school districts should not infringe upon, particularly the authority of the parent-child relationship,” she said. “Politics and ideology should be left out of the classroom as students should never know their teacher’s political beliefs, social ideologies or sexual behavior.”

CRT is not taught in Bentonville Schools, communications director Leslee Wright said.

“We teach Arkansas state standards, and critical race theory is not included in the state frameworks,” she said.

To Wright’s knowledge, this is the first time a political action committee has backed a Bentonville school board candidate.

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Local impact

This is not the first time a group of Arkansas school board candidates have run on conservative policies. In May, Linda Hargis, Dr. David Naylor and Jason Sanderfer campaigned for the Conway School Board as candidates with “strong conservative voices.” 

All three won their races and joined the seven-member board that is considering adopting a policy that would prohibit the teaching and promotion of critical race theory, divisive concepts and other government-sanctioned gender, racial or sexual ideologies, according to the Arkansas Times.

The board passed two policies affecting transgender students during its Oct. 11 meeting. One prohibits transgender students and staff from using the restroom that aligns with their gender identity. They may use single-use restrooms if they’re uncomfortable with multiple-occupancy restrooms. 

The second policy requires that students be separated by their gender assigned at birth during overnight trips. Reasonable accommodation will be provided for those who aren’t comfortable with the policy. The board also voted to remove two books about transgender youth from the school library.

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Antoinette Grajeda, Arkansas Advocate
Antoinette Grajeda, Arkansas Advocate

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.

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