Following the Money: Ferrell’s Funding

Announcing Alabama Builders PAC Endorsement

With Dr. Robinson’s claim on Thursday afternoon that it would be impossible for a school board member to recuse herself from every vote the board faced that involved a campaign donor, I decided that it was time to look and see who was giving money to Elisa Ferrell’s funding for her school board run. (The news that Mr. Culbreath is being sued for questionable dealings and espionage with one of his donors Mr. Dallas Fanning–Huntsville’s Chief Planner until 2010–who gave him $200.00 in 2012 also drove me to examine her records as several of the same people who supported Dr. Robinson and Mr. Culbreath have also supported Mrs. Ferrell.) You may look her campaign finance reports for yourself here. Of the five candidates running for the school board seat that is being vacated by Dr. Robinson, Mrs. Ferrell has done the most to align herself with Dr. Robinson and Dr. Wardynski. (She has, in fact, been openly critical of those who actually ask questions of the board and superintendent.)

Mrs. Ferrell has raised the most money of any candidate in district 3 which is evident from the advertising she is doing. As of August 15th, she had raised approximately $11,730.00 as compared to Mr. Knowles’ $7,008.00, Dr. Brusick’s $3,495.00, and Mrs. Rooker’s $3,090.00. (So far as I have been able to uncover, Mr. Sanders has not filed a single campaign finance report for this election period. Every other candidate has been filing reports since at least the beginning of July.) Mr. Sanders’ reports have been filed under James Patrick Sanders. He has three donors who have given him a total of $1,400.00. One of the donors shares the candidate’s last name.

Surprisingly for someone who has raised nearly twice as much funding as her nearest competitor and nearly four times the amount of Mrs. Rooker, Mrs. Ferrell has only two more itemized donors than Mrs. Rooker as of their most current reports. Mrs. Ferrell has reported approximately 12 itemized donors. Mrs. Rooker has reported 10. By way of comparison, Mr. Knowles has approximately 27 and Dr. Brusick has approximately 20.

So, where has Mrs. Ferrell’s funding come from? Who are these twelve or so donors that have put her so far ahead of her opponents?

Eliza Ferrell’s Funding

For someone who claims that her motivation for running is “advocacy for students,” Mrs. Ferrell does not seem to be receiving much support from parents of children in the district.

She is, instead, receive significant support from area developers many of whom have supported Dr. Robinson and Mr. Culbreath in their past campaigns. As of her latest campaign filing, Mrs. Ferrell has received donations from the following twelve donors.

2014 Campaign Contributions

Here are the actually campaign reports if you wish to verify the accuracy of the chart above.


So who are these twelve donors?


First up is the political action arm of the Committee of 100, BIZPAC. As we discussed last month, the Committee of 100 has three members who have a background in education. None of these three serve on the BIZPAC Board of Directors. In short, BIZPAC exists, as they state, to elect “business-oriented candidates.” They do not exist to elect candidates who are advocates for students.

Kenneth Upchurch

I believe that the Kenneth Upchurch listed here is W. Ken Upchurch of TCU Consulting Services. I believe that this is the same Kenneth Upchurch who headed the committee to relocate and rebuild Grissom High School at the new location behind Sam’s Club on land donated to the city/district by John and James Hays.

The primary reason that I am uncertain that this is the same W. Ken Upchurch of TCU Consulting Services is the address that is listed as Kenneth Upchurch’s place of residence. W. Ken Upchurch, according to the TCU website, lives in Montgomery, Alabama. The address listed for Kenneth Upchurch, donor to Ferrell is, “927 Merchant Walk SW / Huntsville, AL. 35801.” This is not, however, a residential address but is instead a commercial address. It is either the address of J.T. Couch, State Certified Real Estate Appraiser, or Ted Mullins & Associates, Real Estate Appraiser.

Thus I believe that Kenneth Upchurch is in fact W. Kenneth Upchurch of TCU Consulting Services, but I could be wrong.

TCU Consulting Services works for Huntsville City Schools. Since July 2013, the district has paid TCU Consulting Services a total of $1,591,625.63.

John Nolan

I do not know Mr. Nolan, but I do know that he has been one of Dr. Robinson’s biggest supporters. In her 2010 school board race, he and his wife gave her $5,000.00 a piece. Together they were her largest single donor. In December 2013, they again gave her an additional $5,000.00 for her city council race. (Mr. McGinnis has also received a donation from Mr. Nolan in this election.) Unlike most of Ferrell’s supporters, Mr. Nolan does at least live in this district. He and his wife are the principles of The ELM Foundation. There doesn’t seem to be much information about the ELM Foundation except that they appear to have about $600k in assets and $600k in income. On her LinkedIn page, Dr. Robinson writes:

After fifteen years as a leadership consultant and trainer, I accepted the new challenge in the Fall of 2012 of creating and running a startup private operating foundation. The ELM Foundation takes its name from the expectation of the founders that people in need can “expect little miracles.” I create “little miracles” every day with people in need, by working with them to create action plans focused on self-sufficiency, stewardship, and service.

I suppose therefore that the ELM Foundation creates little miracles for some.

While there doesn’t seem to be much information about this foundation, Mr. Nolan, literally, wrote the book on corporate espionage. Those skills come in handy for people wishing to, as the Mayor denied last night, steal one development away from another. For more information on Mr. Nolan’s Army Intelligence background, you might want to take a look at Merts Center Monitor’s exposé on him from 2012.


Expect Little Miracles indeed.

Byron Headrick

Mr. Headrick is the President and Co-Founder of LEAN Frog. I’ve written about Mr. Headrick on this site several times before. He has been working for the district since at least November 2011. He was responsible for conducting the efficiency audits that Dr. Wardynski wanted to prove to the city just how terrible the previous administration, under this same board of education, actually was. (Mr. Headrick has also made a donation of $500.00 to the McGinnis Campaign.)

Headrick regularly works, it appears, without an actual contract as Mr. Spinelli once wrote to tell me “the district does not have any documents responsive to your request” when I requested a copy of the LEAN Frog Contract. At that time from November 2011-February 2012, the district had paid LEAN Frog $28,790.00 without a contract. Since then up through June 2014, the district has paid Mr. Headrick’s company approximately $1,960,552.90. I still have never seen an actual board approved contract for that work.

One would think that for nearly $2 million over almost three years, the district would be fair efficient now. “Strong Leadership” indeed.

Frank Swalley

Mr. Swalley is on staff at Willowbrook at Bailey Cove where I believe Mrs. Ferrell attends church. He, in the past, has been responsible for some of the building projects at Whitesburg Baptist Church. He, too, is one of the few Ferrell supporters who actually lives in the district.

Frank Ward

Mr. Ward is a DUI Attorney at Price & Flowers Law Firm. He does not appear to live in district 3. He has also made donations to Mrs. Wilder’s campaign for the District 2 seat and Mr. McGinnis’s campaign for the District 4 seat. He seems quite interested in influencing the direction of the school board for the next four years.


ChapmanSisson Architects is the architectural firm that was hired to design Goldsmith Schiffman, Providence, the New Blossomwood facility and the New Whitesburg facility in Mrs. Ferrell’s district. In the past year, ChapmanSisson has been paid approximately $1,341,205.04 in checks from the district.

Joe Ritch

Mr. Ritch is a lawyer with Sirotte & Permutt and is also the Chair for the BRAC committee and now TVA. He also does not appear to live in District 3. He has made other campaign contributions to Beth Wilder in District 2 and Walker McGinnis in District 4. He too seems quite interested in influencing the direction of the school board for the next four years.

Alabama Builders Political Action Committee

The Alabama Builders PAC is, “the best chance to sustain positive growth for your business!” They have given donations to Mrs. Ferrell, Mrs. Battle, but seemingly not Mrs. Wilder. I suppose they aren’t expecting any growth opportunities in her district, or perhaps Mrs. Wilder simply hasn’t reported their donation yet.

The Broadway Group

The Broadway Group makes their money in real estate development as well. They purchased East Clinton Elementary in 2012 for $1.6 million dollars and turned it into a private school. They’ve given donations of $1,000.00 to Mrs. Ferrell, Mr. McGinnis, and Mrs. Wilder.

The Hays Family

John and James Hays are the family that sold some of the land for the New Grissom site. Hylis, Inc., their development company, will retain the rights to develop the area surrounding that area. Two weeks ago, the city approved a $4.4 million road project to support the new school and planned development. They do, at least, have businesses in the district.

Ferrell Supported by Developers, District Consulting Firms, and Two Lawyers, (and TBA HEA?!?)

So what can we take away from this examination of Elisa Ferrell’s contributors?

  • Most of her financial support comes from outside of her district.
  • Most of her financial support comes from people who do not have children nor grandchildren in Huntsville City Schools
  • Most of her support comes from people and companies who have benefitted financially from working with the district, and apparently they see Ferrell as the most likely district 3 candidate to continue that financial benefit.
  • Most of her support is focused on the issue of development rather than advocacy for students.

I’m sure that when further campaign reports are released after the election that we’ll have a fuller picture of who is supporting Mrs. Ferrell. I have, astonishingly, been told by Mrs. Shirley Wellington, HEA Uniserv director that H-Vote, the Political Action Committee of HEA has voted to endorse Mrs. Ferrell, Mrs. Wilder, and Mr. McGinnis for school board.

Frankly, I’m astonished that H-Vote would do this as there has been no candidate in the past three years who has been more openly hostile to HEA/AEA/NEA than Mrs. Ferrell. The only thing that is more surprising is that she would even accept the endorsement. It’s not like she needs the money.

Clearly if you are a member of HEA, you should at a minimum remove your support from the H-Vote PAC. Whomever is driving that ship (and I believe it is being driven by HEA members who work in the central office), does not represent your best interests in their endorsements. All three of their endorsed candidates are on the record opposing due process for teachers. (This despite the fact that Mr. McGinnis has himself reportedly benefitted from having due process when he was a teacher.)

Please understand, I am not claiming that any of this support is illegal (it isn’t) or even unethical. As we’ve seen, the Alabama Ethics Commission is far more concerned with a family giving a gift card to a teacher than they are with developers who have made millions off of the district giving thousands to candidates they believe will continue that pattern. Sadly in Alabama, that doesn’t appear to be unethical.

And here in Huntsville, it appears to be business as usual.

I am, however, claiming that it is important for voters who are considering supporting Mrs. Ferrell in the election next Tuesday to know whose interests she will be actually looking out for. As they say, you dance with the ones who brought you.

And in Mrs. Ferrell’s case, those who brought her here aren’t children nor their advocates.

"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.


  1. Actually The Broadway Group did not buy East Clinton. They tried to, but people like Richaed Buchanan did not let them. The purchase price would have been $1.5Mish and then over $1M to bring it up to code. Somehow Providence School bought the property did not have a total of $2.5M to buy and bring up the property to code, but I believe our “wonderful” mayor helped out this “problem”. So many people who live near East Clinton cares so much for this property that they sent their kids to Randolph and other private schools. If they loved it so much they would have sent their kids there. Also they loved it so much, no one offer to write a $1.5M check to buy it. If you want a park, get in your bike and go to one OR buy your kids a swing set.

    1. Jonathan,

      I believe that the Broadway Group did indeed buy East Clinton as was reported in the Times on December 4, 2012 as I linked to in the article. Now, there is a second report in the Times dated March 24, 2013 that states that the Huntsville Historic Preservation Commission denied Broadway’s request to demolish East Clinton. http://blog.al.com/breaking/2013/03/huntsville_developer_bob_broad_1.html

      I will, however, free admit that as I do not live in that district or neighborhood, I did not follow those transactions closely. If you have additional details and evidence you can share, I’ll be happy to alter that section in the post.

      1. As I understood it, Broadway did buy the property, but there was an option in the contract that allowed him to cancel the purchase if the planning commission did not allow him to demolish the school.

        As for Jonathan’s criticisms of the city and the residents around East Clinton, those are unfounded, in my opinion. Rich people typically send their kids to private schools, period, and that’s just the way it is. They especially send their kids to private schools when the local public school is high-poverty and low-performing, as East Clinton was. Even so, the building is a wonderful piece of architecture and is certainly an integral part of that neighborhood. Having Providence Classical take over the building was a win-win for everyone. I don’t support the destruction of the Merts Center (old Huntsville High School) in favor of a more “efficient” new building, either. Historic preservation is important.

  2. Thanks so much for your digging, your insightful reporting of the facts, and for keeping your focus on the kids.

  3. You know Russell, you seem to know a lot about how campaigns should be run. And how to raise funds. And who to seek donations from. And how politicians should behave. And how they should vote once in office. Since you know so much, why don’t you actually do something- like run for office- instead of complaining and pointing fingers at the people who are brave enough to do so?

    1. I just love these types of criticisms. So you can’t complain about the police unless you become a police officer. And you can’t complain about the military unless you join it. And you can’t complain about the president unless you run for the White House. Really, the list is endless. Dollars to doughnuts that SHsvSoccerMom doesn’t apply such standards to herself.

      1. SHsvSoccerMom is welcome to offer any criticism of me that she wishes. As is anyone. If it is a criticism that I think is valid, I will alter my behavior/opinions as a result of it. I believe in education, and criticism is crucial to education. It’s a shame that more of those running our educational system in Huntsville don’t realize this and instead attempt to squelch opinion with which they disagree.

        That’s why I allowed SHsvSoccerMom’s comment to be posted. That’s why I don’t censor the comment section of the blog.

        But I appreciate the comment, Ben. Thanks.

          1. I know. Didn’t mean to imply that you did. I was just attempting to share that I don’t censor criticism, but I suppose that’s unnecessary to say. 🙂

      2. Following SHsvSoccorMom’s logic, I suppose that she would argue that Dr. Wardynski, since he’s never been an PreK-12th grade teacher (his only teaching experience is as an adjunct), shouldn’t be allowed to criticize the teachers in the district.

  4. You are correct about who doesn’t live in the district. Joe Ritch lives on Monte Sano. Frank Ward appears to live in the Montdale area off of Old Big Cove Road.

    About Pat Sanders’ campaign finance filings, I believe he is self-funding his campaign. I’m not sure if the law still requires him to file forms if he has no donors, but just thought I would throw that out there.

    1. I actually need to update the information about Pat Sanders’ campaign. He has filed reports. They are listed under James Patrick Sanders. He has raised $1,400.00, from three individual donors, one of whom shares the candidate’s last name. He currently has about $465 in cash.

  5. Russell, actually Jonathon is correct. The Broadway Group never finalized their purchase on East Clinton School. Providence bought the historic building with the city purchasing the easement to put a park back where HCC had removed the old playground. (I live in the neighborhood.)

    And I actually am glad that there are people that are willing to cross district lines, with money and interests. District politics are a huge problem. If we were all concerned (individuals, businesses, board members, etc.) about the entire school system and all our students- not just the ones in “my district”- our city could excell.

    1. LJ,

      I have altered the post to reflect that I was incorrect about the Broadway Groups final involvement with East Clinton School. Thanks for the information.

      I do not have an issue with people from one part of the district getting involved in another part of the district. Yes, we need to be concerned about the entire city. What happens in one area affects the others. As I work on the north end of town and have children in the south end of town, I am interested in both.

      But I believe it is valid to question why a developer is making a significant donation to a candidate. I think it is also valid to question why someone who has made nearly $2 million over the past three years working for the district is supporting a select few of the candidates.

      But your point is well taken. It is important to be concerned about the city as a whole. As I work and teach on the north end and have children in schools on the south, I agree.

      1. Russ, as you know, I pretty much spent the entire afternoon digging in Probate Records, on both the current Candidates, as well as current Board Members…
        The amount of “Donations” coming from Developers, Real Estate Agents, and even the “hidden” TIES between personal Contributions from Individuals is astounding…
        Regardless of whether there are actual LEGAL Ethics Violations…. It seems that if the Board wanted to do the RIGHT THING, there would be some simple Solution, such as Mandatory RECUSING on Votes where Donations were tied to the Issues up for vote.

        Of course, with everything I am finding, there would pretty much just be CRICKETS in the Board Room at that point… 🙂

    2. Actually, LJ, there hasn’t been very much in the way of “district politics” in Huntsville in recent years. I would go so far as to say there hasn’t been enough of it, actually. Yes, board members should think about the good of all students in the city. On the other hand, they represent constituents in their district — if anyone is going to be attuned to the problems in that district’s schools and aware of those schools’ needs, it should be the school board representative from that district. Unfortunately, many districts have not had much representation in the past decade. Certainly District 3 hasn’t. There has to be a balance, but right now everything is way out of whack in the direction of “the whole system.” When you look at who is contributing the money for these campaigns, “the whole system” translates to: “What’s good for District 2.”

  6. As always, thank you, Geek Palaver, for being involved and informing the public of your information. That HEA is supporting people who hurt education in Huntsville doesn’t surprise me. That is EXACTLY why I dropped my membership over a year ago. I advise all members to do the same. If we have active members endorsing people who deliberately speak against Huntsville members or the job they
    do, I think all HEA members could find a better use for their money. That HEA has not PUBLICIZED their A – VOTE endorsements, might be a hint that they are confused or uninformed. That an AEA Uniserv Director representing Huntsville sits idly at school board meetings, might be a hint HEA members are not being represented. There is hope, however. These HEA members CAN VOTE in this Tuesday’s election and SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES. In case they haven’t noticed, no one else in their organization is speaking for them. Thank you again, Geek, for doing a great job of keeping educators informed. It is so much easier to understand people that speak and express themselves in PUBLIC, rather than hide behind pac contributions.

Comments are closed.