May 14, 2024 - Politics

Zach Young poised to make history as first out LGBTQ school board member

School board candidate Zach Young

Photo: Courtesy of Zach Young

Zach Young is on the brink of Tennessee school board history.

The big picture: Young is completing a political comeback after losing his seat on the Metro Council in last year's election.

  • Because he's unopposed on the August ballot for the District 3 school board seat, Young is a lock to win. According to the Victory Fund, an advocacy group that supports LGBTQ political candidates, Young will become the first out gay school board member in Tennessee.

Why it matters: Young's accomplishment comes at the same time Republican state lawmakers pursue legislation opposed by LGBTQ advocates. The timing is not coincidental.

Flashback: Young, 32, was considered a political up-and-comer and a popular figure among business leaders before his Goodlettsville-area council district was rezoned to represent more conservative voters.

  • He lost a bitter campaign to Jennifer Frensley Webb in the August general election.
  • Young tells Axios he didn't know what his political future held when he attended a Victory Fund conference in Washington, D.C., last December.

What happened next: "I was beginning to hear how school boards are becoming frontlines of the fight to maintain LGBTQ equality in our country," Young tells Axios. He'd already been approached by outgoing board member Emily Masters and others about running for her seat.

  • "While I was there, I called her back and said, 'Maybe I'm growing a wild hair, but things are starting to feel right,'" Young says.

State of play: During the recently completed session, state lawmakers pondered a bill to ban teachers from displaying pride flags in their classrooms. That effort fell by the wayside in the session's final days.

The intrigue: Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education this month over a federal policy designed to protect transgender students in the classroom.

  • Tennessee passed a law in 2022 banning transgender athletes from playing women's sports. The state also has a law requiring students to use the bathroom associated with the gender assigned to them at birth.
  • "Federal bureaucrats have no power to rewrite laws passed by the people's elected representatives, and I expect the courts will put a stop to this unconstitutional power grab," Skrmetti said in a press release.

What he's saying: Young says he's proud to be joining the school board, "especially in an environment like the one we're in in Tennessee."

  • Young tells Axios the historic nature of his election has brought to mind a conversation with a teacher at Goodlettsville Middle about the impact of the Metro Council's LGBTQ caucus.
  • "She said, 'I use y'all as examples that you, too, as a gay kid can grow up and be an important leader in your own community,'" Young says.
  • "That was pretty dang cool to hear."

Once Young is seated on the school board, he says a top priority is to reverse the Metro Nashville Public Schools policy of outsourcing its janitorial services to private contractors.

State of play: MNPS began outsourcing the contracts for janitors, who previously worked directly for the district, in 2010.

  • Young says the district should hire janitors directly and give them pay raises.

By the numbers: A district spokesperson says the total budget for the two contracts was $24.7 million for the 2023-24 fiscal year.

  • The contracts are extended through June 30, 2027.
  • "It's going to cost a lot to correct the mistake, because it certainly is going to cost more to bring them in-house," Young says. "But we dedicated a lot of recurring funding to make improvements to pay for bus drivers, paraprofessionals and raising teacher pay. I'm not saying they have enough by any means. But it's time we step up and do the same for our janitorial staff."
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