Tim Fulton  00:08

Welcome to the confluence cast presented by Columbus underground. We are a weekly Columbus centric podcast focusing on the civics, lifestyle, entertainment, and people of our city. I’m your host, Tim Fulton. This week. Big cities have big city problems. Columbus is newest school board member argues that the inequity of our schools shows that we certainly are a big city. Brandon Simmons, also the youngest school board member ever elected is on a mission to face the challenges of the district head on. In an interview two days after his first board meeting, we discussed the challenges that the district faces the power and importance of public education, and how he navigated the city’s political landscape to get into office. You can get more information on what we’ve discussed today in the show notes for this episode at the confluence cast.com. Enjoy the interview. Sitting down here with Brandon Simmons, the newly minted member of the Columbus Board of Education. Brandon, how are you?

Brandon Simmons  01:12

I’m good. How are you?

Tim Fulton  01:13

I’m doing well. I’m doing well. You just two days ago, as of this recording sat for your first Columbus Board of Education meeting. You are self proclaimed the youngest member of the Columbus Board of Education. it’s ever been seated, sworn in how the meeting go.

Brandon Simmons  01:31

Thank you. Oh, I will say they there’s this board. So this and this will be on. There’s this board policy 0148, which basically just says I’m supposed to communicate that all these views and opinions are mine and not the entire board. Okay, which I imagine would have been assumed anyways. But you’re just you’re taking a

Tim Fulton  01:49

policy? Yeah, right. Yes. So how did it go?

Brandon Simmons  01:52

It went really well, we were able to elect a new leadership team, which I have confidence in. And then I was able to successfully get an amendment off the floor for one of our, our pieces of legislation on the agenda.

Tim Fulton  02:02

Okay. And we you we were talking just before I started recording, you wanted to make sure that you okay, and we will get into how did you get here? And what’s your background? And what are your goals, but you talked about how you wanted to make sure that your first meeting was impactful? Yes. Talk to me more about that. Um,

Brandon Simmons  02:20

well, you know, when I think about the history of our district, you know, we’ve struggled, our district has always been inequitable for a lot of people, especially our black students, but our district has really been on a 50 year long decline. And it’s been really painful. And so when I think about the next, you know, four to 10 years, the opportunity we have in the district, I really want us to seize on the momentum we have, I want to see us the levy that was passed as an opportunity to make the hard decisions rather than do what we normally do and avoid making hard decisions. And so I felt like it was really important not to waste time and to come out of the gate and to be effective and to influence the policy in the way that I think is best for our students. Is

Tim Fulton  02:56

it fair? Well, I don’t want to assign anything right. But it seemed as though outsider’s perspective that your goal may have been a little bit to be like, I am not here as a placeholder. I am here to affect change,

Brandon Simmons  03:11

you know, so I will say I ran on being a radically different school board member than we had ever seen here in Columbus. And I ran on really a different perspective of what the role of a school board is a more a solution driven role, a role that is more about accountability and providing oversight and setting up the our district for success. And so I definitely, you know, I’m not on the board to be a rubber stamp.

Tim Fulton  03:32

Okay, great. What made you want to run in the first place? Yeah.

Brandon Simmons  03:36

So you know, I was I grew up on hilltop with my grandparents, I went to Columbus alternative high school. And you know, we spent all my sophomore year with, we spent all my sophomore year just learning about civics. We had the cost Civic Education Leadership Academy, which was actually taught by one of my colleagues now Dr. Tina peers. Okay, so we spent the entire year just learning about civics. And at the end of that year, we said, well, you know, we should really take all these skills and put it towards a project, what should we do? And so we decided, we looked around the community, we thought about different things, and Lyndon were causes. And when we looked at causes building, and we said, are building a road, our building is in really bad repair. And so we kind of said we should organize around our building and up doing a community conversation, I thought we’d be lucky if one if maybe one media outlet and 20 community members showed up. We ended up getting I think every media outlet in Columbus, I’m including Columbus underground, to come out and maybe like 100 community members, and it really showed me throughout that process. One talking to the board members, he came out, I very quickly learned they just did not have the capacity to move our district forward in the way I thought our students deserved. But I also learned that our community is interested in the district and they want to see the district do better. And I just quickly learned how powerful it is to use your voice and to advocate for the entire year of advocacy. We were talking about buildings. I was told Brandon, there’s no more money, there’s no more money, there’s no more money. You have to wait for the next Levy. But I kept going down the board meetings I kept sending out meat He releases, I kept getting media coverage. And then finally there was or eventually there was $1.5 million. I was like, Oh, I thought there was no more money, it seems to advocacy works. And then I just, we just kept going and going and going and going. And that’s really what motivated me to run for the board. I said to myself, when I was a student, if I ever have the chance to run for the board, I think I can contribute. And I think I can be impactful, I want to do it.

Tim Fulton  05:21

And so with the success of that campaign, you’ve got some sort of wind behind you, you’ve got some confidence there. You’re still sophomore in high school at this point, right?

Brandon Simmons  05:31

Well, the campaign went over the course of maybe, I don’t know, a year and a half or two years. Okay. So by the tail end of it, you know, we ended up being awarded the $1.5 million, I think, maybe the end of my junior year. So went on a couple more months doing more advocacy, and then when the pandemic started that really kind of disrupted things. Okay. So it was kind of more of the end of my, I guess, my senior year that that all wrapped up.

Tim Fulton  05:53

Okay. And you that was, again, talking right before we got on air you graduated in 2020. You graduated online? Yes. And so then how did you start the process of running for school board?

Brandon Simmons  06:05

So, you know, I thought about running, I actually thought about running in 2019 When I was a student? And I know not Not then. And then I thought about it and 21. But you know, one of the downsides of the pandemic is it was so hard to get people to pay attention to local races. And so I decided, well, there’s only three seats on the ballot this year, you know, let’s, let’s wait till till the next time. And so even before teacher strike, I knew the National Environment, everything happening with education, public education is under attack nationally, I knew that democratic activists would be paying more attention to school board races next year. And that’s a lot of the people I was involved with as a student. And so I figured, okay, well, you know, I might be able to do this, people are interested in school board races now more than ever. And then we had our first teacher strike. I remember I was away on a work trip in Philadelphia. And I kind of thought to myself, like, Oh, this is this is is really bizarre that our our board is the relationship has broken down so much that you know, our board has determined it’s this is their best and final offer is willing to walk away from the table. And so after the strike, I knew that there’d be much more criticize criticism of the board. And and I knew that there’d be a desire from local political people to make a change on our board.

Tim Fulton  07:15

And so did you end up going through like the Democratic party system locally, like? turnout? Like you were you were endorsed? I

Brandon Simmons  07:26

was? Yeah, so I was I was also an intern when I was in high school, cause you know, on Wednesdays, you go out to their internship, this is

Tim Fulton  07:33

my opportunity for full disclosure, I also went to cause Columbus alternative high school. So did council president Hardin. And so long line of as I call them, cosmonauts, yes. In case this is not pegas. i Our mascot. Sorry, I cut you off from where we were

Brandon Simmons  07:53

the um, how did I Yeah. The Democratic Party structure I started having conversations about it. Um, shortly after the strike with some State Rep. Adam Miller, who’s my, one of my mentors, and then I really started hitting the ground running the day after Election Day. 2022. I went to the board of elections. I pulled my petition school board here in Columbus is 300 signatures on to put that in perspective, the only thing higher is mayor or some of our statewide offices. Yeah. And so it’s, for those who who are not familiar with signatures, if you basically have to collect double the number you need. There’s a lot of things that can disqualify signatures. So I knew I had to go out and get 600 signatures with all these crazy rules about what signatures were allowed or not. But I just started organizing, I did the same thing that I did. When I was a student, I started calling people I knew and saying, Hey, I’m running, can you help me? You know, I had one of my relatives, take pictures for my website, I started putting my website together. And I really just spent when you run for office, you have to make the rounds, you have to talk to all the important people, as they like to think I guess. And so I really started over the next of just the next three or four months meeting with people and really having good conversations about my candidate, my candidacy. And then I got to April and April was really the hardest month of my campaign because I got to the point where I had introduced myself to everyone, people knew who I was, people knew what I was running on, they liked what they saw. But people really were not sold then and I had to really leverage a lot of relationships to a lot of good validators to convince not just Democratic Party people, but also our partners in labor that I was the right choice for the board, and then ended up screening with the Columbus Education Association, our teachers union, and waited. They have a longer process than some organizations and so I ended up waiting three weeks to hear back and I am a person that worries if the sun’s gonna come up the next day. And so for those entire three weeks, I was just very worried. I knew that endorsement was so critical. It was the first big endorsement in the campaign. And I remember I was getting ready to go to an event I was getting dressed, and I got the call from CEA that had earned their endorsement. I was so excited and that really gave me the momentum I needed to go into screening with the Columbus School Employees Association or classifying Louie’s union ended up earning their endorsement as well. And that led me to the position with walking into the county party screening beach being in a very strong position having our labor support and even Yeah, during all that I had raised, I think, by that point, oh, maybe 15 or $16,000, and so on, which was, which is, you know, most schools, candidates, I went for scoring, Columbus tend to raise around I think, 10, or 1215, and 16 is the high end. And so I was already at that by the midpoint. And that really allowed me to walk into the screening room in a very strong position with the party. Okay.

Tim Fulton  10:33

And so sorry, for this question, I guess. 300 signatures, yeah, raising a significant amount of money. A more, at least for my understanding, having talked to the council candidates, they really are looking for one endorsement, right. And there’s trickle down from that you were looking for a more rigor in a more rigorous endorsement process, and then walked into that Democratic party endorsement in a strong position. That’s great. All that being said, you’re walking into a position where you have Yes, more duties, but it’s two meetings a month you’re compensated for attending those meetings, you’re not given a salary. Correct. Based on my understanding, we

Brandon Simmons  11:18

have any school board member in the state of Ohio will ever be paid is $5,000. A year. Yes.

Tim Fulton  11:24

Okay, so that’s not a salary. No. is my point. Oh, it is not. And, you know, hearkening back to like, most city council members here, don’t have second jobs. I think Liz brown attested that she was the first full time city council person, yes. All this to say why? Like, why like, and I hope I know the answer to it. But I want you to say in your own words, why do all this work above and beyond what other folks do for more prestigious positions, more impactful positions? Arguably, why did you go through all that?

Brandon Simmons  12:02

I would say public education is the most important service our government provides. It’s a it’s a social safety net public education is what determines whether a lot of our families eat or not. I was at champion middle school today. And they have a store that is sponsored partnership, but they have a store where students can get snacks food to take home over the weekend, they can get shampoo, they have a washer and dryer there, they will wash kids clothes if they need it. And so it’s much more than just education. Yes, the education itself is incredibly important. But even things like vision and hearing tests and identifying those and do you know staff who are trained to spot children that may not be in safe homes. And so public education is such an incredible social safety net. And I really just, I reached the point where I was frustrated watching our board at the time, squander opportunities for the district, our district can be much better. Our district we know we can build a district where our students are excited are proud to say their Columbus City School students were our teachers and our custodians and our food service workers wake up and they feel good about coming to work. Our parents are happy to send their kids off to our schools. You know, Columbus City Schools is a story of policy decisions, not just by our board, you know, we’re impacted by things that happen in City Hall, were impacted by things that happen at the Statehouse at the federal level. But our district does not have to look the way it is. We can make changes. We do have choices. And I wanted to lead. I wanted to delete an idea around a board that was capable of doing that.

Tim Fulton  13:29

Talk to me about what actual it seems to me. Again, this is an outsider’s perspective. And someone was talking to my editor earlier about the fact that like we don’t have dedicated coverage of the school board. I don’t believe the dispatch has they do have they have coverage, but not dedicated over the

Brandon Simmons  13:48

school board might be wrong. But I think when I was in high school that dispatch had a suburban educated K 12. Education reporter in a Columbus K 12. Education reporter correct. And I think at least at this moment in time, and I’m Forgive me if I am wrong, I don’t think there’s any dedicated reporter for the school board.

Tim Fulton  14:03

That is correct. So I guess my again, from an outsider’s perspective, our perception is that the superintendent and that the administrator, the various administrators, and if you want to get into how that’s structured, that’s fine. I’m not well educated enough to check you on it. But the perception is that you guys empower the superintendent to do their job. And while that is true, I guess what I’m curious about is what can the school board do other than approve contracts and set certain policies in motion to truly affect change? Or is it through those things? So

Brandon Simmons  14:43

I would say you know, school boards are really interesting organizations because they can do just not everything. No one can do everything they want. But school boards have a wide range of authority over what happens in the school district and they can Voice those concerns. So in a lot of school boards right now we’re seeing, you know, moms were Liberty candidates for right candidates take over their boards and are really driving the agenda. School scores can also do absolutely nothing. And they can just be a rubber stamp. And we’ve seen that from time to time here in Columbus, our board somehow found a way to do a hybrid of both where we were way too involved in the wrong areas, and then extremely hands off and all the other areas. For me, it’s about an absolute either or it’s about balancing, how can we have a board that is, you know, allowing the ministration to run the day to day operations of the district and execute on the vision that we know they’re capable of? But also, how can we have a board that is providing that robust accountability that is solution driven, that is, you know, leading the district in the direction our community wants us to go? And so there is those conflicting views of what what is actually the, you know, the legal authority of a school board is pretty clear. It’s wide ranging, it’s broad, but the political will or the desire of school board members is something that is not always the same.

Tim Fulton  16:03

Do you feel good about the current makeup of the board, but the people, it’s interesting to note, right, that you guys have the seven members, two of them are men, the other five are women? It is, as you said earlier, it’s a minority majority board. How do you feel about the current makeup and your colleagues there?

Brandon Simmons  16:21

You so I would say I’m very confident in the leadership team we elected this week, um, it’s something I was able to play a part in, and helping facilitate. I’m very confident in the leadership team, I’m excited to move forward with them. And I will say, all of my colleagues, we all have the same values, you know, no one is going like you said, collect all these signatures raise this money for very little money, you know, you’re passionate about right, you know, all of us care about public education and the district. So none of us are there because we don’t care. So we all have the same values. It’s just about how can we turn those values into policy into a direction for our administration that is going to actually deliver the student outcomes our community expects? So I would say, I feel good working with my colleagues, because we all share those values.

Tim Fulton  17:06

Talk to me a little bit more about your your current background, what’s your day job? What you live on the hilltop still? What’s What’s that part of your stump?

Brandon Simmons  17:15

Yeah. So you know, I was I was in college. So shortly after I graduated, I started at Columbus Day, and okay, and I started, I decided, well, you know, I’m going to take a semester off, and then a semester turned into two, which I was fine with, because I was working full time. And then I decided, you know, I’m gonna run for office, and I knew I couldn’t run for office, work full time and, and run for office work full time and go to school full time and do all those things. Well, okay, I took a semester off, or I took a year off to run for office successfully. So I’m looking to restart at Columbus State this summer, and then gradually transferred to Central State University. I will say my day job, I’m a growth marketing consultant. I normally don’t talk very much about that. Just because it’s not.

Tim Fulton  18:03

You’re not looking to get jobs because of your elected office. Yeah, I get it. Yeah,

Brandon Simmons  18:08

yes, it’s that and also, you know, as a young person running for office, you know, you’re not running on your professional experience, you’re running on your values, on your vision on your youth, on your longevity on your energy. And so it’s always kind of felt. And that’s one way I was different than the typical candidate, right? Because, you know, I wasn’t saying, Oh, I’ve been director of this, or I have this release procedures degree or from this university, I was saying, you know, hey, I’ve been a student, I know what it’s like to walk into the classroom every day. I see I’ve been effective as a student activist, and I have this vision for the district I think I can enact.

Tim Fulton  18:41

But you do see the argument that one could make that some experience may lend itself better.

Brandon Simmons  18:48

And that’s the great thing about having seven members is you don’t you know, we often talk about diversity in terms of, you know, race, gender, sex, national origin, or all these a lot of really important things. And those are so important conversations, that should continue to happen. But there’s also diversity in terms of background, you know, we don’t want seven people who, you know, it would be really bad if we had seven, Brandon Simmons, on the board who all had the same perspective, that wouldn’t be good. You know, you want people who have different backgrounds. You know, do I think people with my background should, you know, should we have seven on the board? No, but I still think I have a valuable perspective to contribute. And I think I’ve demonstrated so far that I’m able to be effective on the board just in our first meeting. Yeah, and I guess

Tim Fulton  19:30

please forgive me if this is too blunt of a question. Do you how do you think you are viewed on the board among your board? The hard quest like question is like, or is it sort of like, oh, look, there’s Brandon. Like that. You’re a novelty. I don’t who is novelty given the

Brandon Simmons  19:48

really hard questions, okay. But no, I like it. Because sometimes you do interviews and they kind of are like, what, just tell me about yourself. Like, okay, give me the actual real question. Yeah. So I would say A, you know, I’m in a really interesting position because I’m one of our few. Well, first of all, I’m the only Columbus I’m the youngest Columbus elected official. I’m the only Gen Z Columbus elected official. I am the youngest person ever elected to the board. I am one of our few elected officials in Columbus that have ran successfully against an incumbent in one county party’s endorsement over an incumbent. It’s a very difficult thing to do to oust an incumbent anywhere in our political system across the country. But especially here, yes, especially here locally. And so I’m, when I sit at the board table, I am there with a very unique set of qualities and background, I’d say, you know, some people find me, just to be very honest, some people find me to be incredibly refreshing, and are happy to see the dynamic I’m bringing to the board. Some people are maybe not sure. And then other people maybe have somehow found a way to be simultaneously intimidated by my political skills. And then I was able to accomplish this. And I was able to, to win the endorsement over one of their colleagues or one of our board members, but also at the same time, don’t really understand that I know what I’m doing. And so it’s a really interesting duality, to have people who have maybe decided they’re in competition with you. And I don’t feel as if I’m in competition with them, or have maybe decided that I don’t know what I’m doing. But also, you know, I wouldn’t be sitting at the table. If I didn’t know what I was doing. I wouldn’t have gotten a contract pulled off the agenda. If I didn’t know what I was doing. I wouldn’t have gotten an amendment off the floor if I didn’t know I was doing. So it’s a it’s a really interesting duality. And I think as I get to know my colleagues more, we will develop a better relationship and a working relationship. I look forward to that. What

Tim Fulton  21:39

is this natural sense of both politicking? Also, it seems to me Robert’s Rules of Order. Because there’s the board meeting. No, I didn’t watch the board meeting. But you I mean, you are trumpeting, I got an amendment put on I got a contract pulled? Yeah, I actually did the job. I first day, I said

Brandon Simmons  22:00


Tim Fulton  22:01

what is what’s the skill set? You think your other than I bring a diverse? Like, what’s the actual skill set?

Brandon Simmons  22:07

You know, I would say I lead with one I have a good understanding of the our policies. You know, I’ve been reading through our our board policies, our bylaws. You know, even before our first board meeting, I read through my copies of Robert’s Rules of Order to make sure I understood what the rules were really weird when you sit at a table and you understand it a lot better than maybe some other folks. It can make chat conversations a little bit more difficult. And when I’m following the Robert’s Rules, but maybe other people aren’t. Yeah. And then I would say, you know, I lead with values, and I lead with vision, I don’t lead with, you know, this is what I think is best I really lead with, are we making the investment in our students? Are we following our policies? And if not, what’s the message we’re sending? And when you lead with that, it’s really hard to discount your efforts?

Tim Fulton  22:51

Have you started thinking about you’ve got four years to lead? Have you started thinking about what? Again, you’re two days out from your first actual meeting? Yes. What’s next?

Brandon Simmons  23:04

Um, you know, so I would say, when I ran for the board, a lot of people, you know, one thing I didn’t do is say, Oh, I’m going to fix all these problems. That’s something I didn’t do. I also didn’t say, Well, I think I can help in this one small area or this other area, I said, I have a vision for the district. And so for me, the mission is to accomplish the district, you know, I want our district to grow again, I want us to offer more quality services, I want us to be more equitable. I want us to have a smaller building footprint than we do right now. And you know, all those things are going to increase our student outcomes. And so for me, it’s really just about accomplishing that vision for the district. You know, people always ask, you know, what are you going to do next? What are you going to offer next?

Tim Fulton  23:43

I was about to call you out for now to answer I know, you

Brandon Simmons  23:47

know, and I can say I have I have absolutely no idea. Okay, what’s next other than work hard with my colleagues over the next four years to deliver results for our students? I really don’t know.

Tim Fulton  23:57

That’s fair. I end every interview with the same two questions. I asked, What do you think Central Ohio is doing? Well, and what do you think it’s not doing? So well,

Brandon Simmons  24:05

you know, so I’m going to answer what we’re not doing. So well. And this is something I’ve started to communicate to a lot of stakeholders here in Columbus, the success of our city cannot be disconnected. Let me rephrase the success of our city can no longer be disconnected from the outcome in our school district. You know, for too long now we’ve had a successful city. And we haven’t had a district that’s met our expectations for a variety of different reasons. Right. And so, you know, the case I’ve been making to policymakers, decision makers is that those pieces have to be reconnected. We have to have in order to have a successful city, we have to have a successful school district. I would say one of the things you’re starting to hear a lot is you know, Columbus is a big city. We’re a big city now. And I like to remind people that well, the most urban thing about the city, the most big city thing about this city is our school district. It’s the legacy of of disinvestment of segregation of D said busing. That’s the most urban thing about our school district. I will say I think what we’re doing well, is our politics are changing, I would not have won in 2021, I would not have won in 2019. I wouldn’t even if I was older, you know, I would have won in 2017. And so I would say our politics have become much more open minded. But it’s still a matter of are you able to communicate your message with your values and your vision and your story of self? Do you think it’s changing for the better? I will say,

Tim Fulton  25:30

Do you think there was there would be, again, we had 12, Columbus city council candidates, two of them, or two of the three that were not elected, did actually attempt to go through the process of getting endorsed by the party. And so I guess the, the maybe compliment I’m making to you, but also the challenge I have for you is those stories and that narrative and the capacity and capability of those candidates that they have is being communicated to a pretty small group. Yes. Right. And you were able to navigate that system. And that’s great. But I guess I’m trying to gut check you a little bit on its open and like that, yes, they’re open to you coming in. But you still are communicating to a cloistered group of people.

Brandon Simmons  26:20

I think, you know, for someone like myself, who interned with the state party, who, you know, at the time, the state party and the county party, were in the same building. So I got to spend some time with the with the county party. And so I got to meet some people and I interned at the state house with my state representative. And that, you know, there were other there are a lot of different political people that I knew or at least knew of me. So I think someone like me, who is maybe not starting from from zero is in a much better position than other people. I will also say, there’s always more change to be done, and it’s changing, but it’s not the change isn’t finished yet. I think.

Tim Fulton  26:57

That’s fair. Brandon, thanks for your time. Thank you. Thank you for listening to the confluence cast presented by Columbus underground. Again, you can get more information on what we discussed today in the show notes for this episode at the confluence cast.com Please rate subscribe, share this episode of The confluence cast with your friends, family, contacts, enemies, your favorite advocate. If you’re interested in sponsoring the confluence cast, get in touch with us. We can be reached by email at info at the confluence cast.com Our theme music was composed by Benji Robinson, our producers Philip Cogley, I’m your host, Tim Fulton. Have a great week.