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Conway incumbents unseated in closely watched school board election

Election vote
Michael Hibblen

Two political newcomers unseated incumbents on the Conway School Board in an election that attracted increased attention after a series of debates in the district on divisive social issues.

Though school board elections are nonpartisan, the incumbents who lost had aligned themselves with conservatives, even drawing endorsements from Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

However, Trey Geier defeated board member Bill Milburn in the Zone 5 race, and Sheila Franklin beat board vice president Jennifer Cunningham for an at-large position, according to unofficial results.

“This is the community speaking and they spoke with volumes,” Geier said. “I’m super excited both of us won and we’ll be able to represent the community well.”

The Conway School Board 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.

Faulkner County election officials said there was a “very high turnout for a school election” during early voting. There were 4,091 votes cast, more than 9% of registered voters, during the five days of early voting.

According to unofficial results from the Faulkner County Election Commission, 1,207 votes were cast in the Zone 5 election. There were 7,489 votes cast in the at-large race.

Complete but unofficial results in the Zone 5 race on Tuesday were:

Trey Geier — 660

Bill Millburn — 547

In the at-large race:

Sheila Franklin — 4,160

Jennifer Cunningham — 3,301

Jess Disney, a third candidate in the at-large race who voiced her support for Franklin in April, earned 28 votes.

Although school board elections are nonpartisan, Republican Gov. Sanders encouraged voters to elect Cunningham and Milburn, according to social media posts shared by both candidates and the Republican Party of Faulkner County.

Cunningham and Milburn did not reference the Republican party on their campaign pages, but they said they offered a “conservative” choice for voters.

According to campaign finance reports, Cunningham received $2,900 from the Republican Party of Arkansas, $1,000 from Faulkner County Republican Women and $500 from the Faulkner County Republican Committee.

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.