Candidates vie for two Conway school board seats

Election official says voter turnout higher than usual in Faulkner County

By: - May 8, 2023 4:25 pm
A sign reminds voters they need photo ID to vote at polling station at Hillsboro Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee

A sign reminds voters they need photo ID to vote at polling station at Hillsboro Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Interest in the school board election in one Central Arkansas county has grown after the district became a battleground for “culture war” issues, like transgender bathroom policies, book bans and parental rights.

Faulkner County has seen a “very high turnout for a school election,” according to the election commission’s office. There were 4,091 votes cast, more than 9% of registered voters, during the five days of early voting.

Faulkner County is home to the Conway School Board, which drew much attention when it unanimously approved bathroom restrictions last October. The policy served as a template for a state law approved in March that restricts children’s access to bathrooms and changing areas based on their sex assigned at birth. 

The board has also faced controversy for banning some books that discuss LGBTQ romance, drafting a policy that limits which words teachers can say and deleting staff emails after three days.

Conway School Board candidate Trey Geier
Trey Geier
(Courtesy photo)

Trey Geier is running for the Conway School Board’s Zone 5 seat because he said he’s worried about where the current board is headed. 

“They have taken their eye off the ball to push their political agenda,” Geier said. “We shouldn’t be worried about where kids go to use the bathroom. It was already happening the way that they legislated it. However, when they legislated it, they ostracized the kids.”

Geier is facing incumbent Bill Milburn, who was appointed to the board in October to replace Scott Champlin who resigned in September. The winner of this election, one of three dozen contested school board races in Arkansas, will serve the rest of Champlin’s term, which expires in 2024.

A roofer and father of three students in the district, Geier said if he’s elected, he wants to increase transparency by holding board meetings in a larger space where more community members can attend. Board meetings are streamed online, but Geier said the current room where the board convenes only seats about 35.

“The community’s not involved, and if you’re not in the room, you can’t experience it, and watching it on YouTube is not experiencing it,” he said.

Bill Milburn
(Courtesy of Conway Public Schools)

Additionally, Geier said he wants to bring decorum back to the board and focus on education instead of social issues.

A retired major for the Conway Police Department, Milburn declined to comment for this story. 

On his campaign page, Milburn said the district has “a strong conservative board that has proven it is not afraid to take a stand on controversial issues.”

Milburn also said he believes every student has the right to receive the best education in an environment that’s safe from bullying. 

I believe a teacher should teach their subject and avoid trying to indoctrinate their students in areas like politics, religion or social issues,” he said. “Those areas are better taught at home. I believe parents should have full knowledge of what their children are being taught.”


Fellow incumbent Jennifer Cunningham is seeking re-election to her at-large seat against Sheila Franklin and Jess Disney. Cunningham and Franklin did not return interview requests. 

Conway School Board vice president Jennifer Cunningham
Jennifer Cunningham
(Courtesy photo)

Cunningham was first elected in 2018 and is the board’s current vice president. On her campaign page, Cunningham said student safety is important, and said she funded three additional school resource officers during her first five years on the board.

If re-elected, the Conway Public School District alum said she would add more school resource officers and increase transparency for parents so they know what their children are being taught. 

Franklin, a Conway native, said on her campaign website that she’s wanted to be part of the school board for a decade and it’s time to pursue that goal now that she’s retired. Franklin has experience as a Head Start teacher and spent 28 years working as a juvenile probation and intake officer.

“Serving on the Conway School Board is an opportunity to help ensure that Conway Public School District provides services and opportunities to nurture, educate and advance all students,” she said. “It is important that we are focused on providing the best education for every student.”

Conway School Board candidate Sheila Franklin
Sheila Franklin
(Courtesy photo)

A 1980 graduate of Conway High School, Franklin has two grandchildren who are students in the district, as well as a daughter who coaches and teaches in the district. Her daughter was one of the coaches affected by a directive to not wear “Celebrate Black History” t-shirts in February that was later revoked.

Although candidate Jess Disney remains on the ballot, she endorsed Franklin. Disney called Franklin “the right choice” in a Facebook post

“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,” she wrote.

Disney, a Conway schools alum and political activist, said she initially ran for the at-large position after seeing the current school board approve policies she said cause issues within minority groups.

A major factor in endorsing Franklin, Disney said, is a lot of those exclusionary policies that concerned her are now state law. Because of that, Disney said she needs to do more work on the state level.

Conway School Board candidate Jess Disney
Jess Disney
(Courtesy photo)

“While I care deeply for the local community, and I’m going to constantly advocate to hold the school board accountable and raise awareness for things going on in the local community, I personally have set my eyes towards fixing things at the state level,” she said.

By the time Disney said she was comfortable endorsing Franklin, ballots had already been printed, so her name will appear on the ballot and the votes she receives will be counted. 

Polls are open from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on May 9 in Faulkner County and throughout Arkansas.

For more information about elections in your community, including polling sites and sample ballots, visit at


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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

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.