Contested school board race heats up in final stretch
Posted October 31, 2011
Updated November 1, 2011
Raleigh, N.C. — The two candidates running for what has become the most contested seat on the Wake County Board of Education are in the final stretch of their campaigns, a week before voters will go to the polls for a second time to decide the race.
"We have a lot of activity going on – a lot of volunteers, a lot of coordination," says Heather Losurdo, a mother of two and the Republican-backed challenger trying to take the District 3 school board seat from incumbent Kevin Hill.
Losurdo's campaign is focused on trying to reach every registered voter in the north Raleigh area by knocking on doors, sending mailers or calling them.
"I think we've made about 24,000 phone calls since a couple days after the election," she says.
Hill, a lifelong educator and Democrat, won the Oct. 11 election with 49.69 percent of votes but came up 51 votes short of securing the win. State law allows a candidate to request a runoff election if the winner doesn't receive at least 50 percent of the votes, plus one.
Hill and volunteers for his campaign have also been busy canvassing neighborhoods, making phone calls and holding meet-and-greets.
"We are reaching out to as many people as we can, so we've been very busy," Hill says. "It's going to be a busy seven or eight days."
School board races are usually quiet, drawing little attention, but this year's race for five seats on what's supposed to be a nonpartisan school board was anything but low-key, says Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University.
"The school board really did drive the turnout in October," Taylor says. "It wasn't the municipal race. It wasn't the mayoral race."
According to the Wake County Board of Elections, voter turnout – generally low in off-year elections – was 21.16 percent this year – more than double the turnout in 2009.
Democratic-backed candidates won four seats, including that of school board Chairman Ron Margiotta, who led a Republican board majority in overturning a decade-long, nationally recognized student assignment policy that bused students to help maintain socio-economic diversity in all schools.
"There was a high level of interest by the voters. Democrats particularly seemed to be motivated to come out in very high numbers," Taylor says. "That interest was also reflected in the incredible amounts of money that the candidates, themselves, raised."
The races drew in hundreds of thousands of dollars from political donors, vocal backings from the local Republican and Democratic parties and heated rhetoric from outside groups waging personal attacks against candidates – most notably Losurdo, who was dubbed by the liberal group Progress North Carolina Action as "the Queen of Extreme" pushing tea party politics.
Hill and four other Democratic candidates were also the targets of an anonymous flier calling them "liberal allies" of the NAACP – a vocal critic of the district's new assignment policy – and urging voters "to keep these five radicals away from our children."
"It will be interesting to see how many people come out," Taylor says of the Nov. 8 runoff. "If we have roughly the same number of people, it's Hill's to lose. He's only 50 votes shy of the simple majority first time around, but it could well be that we might see a runoff that has more interest than the initial contest."
The Hill-Losurdo race has been viewed by many as a defining win for the future of the board and the school system.
Many proponents of the new community-choice assignment plan – in which parents can rank their school preferences – fear a newly elected Democratic majority might overturn the work of the current board and perhaps even revert to the old student assignment policy – or some form of it.
"If Hill wins, the Republicans will be out in the minority for four years, because all four seats up in 2013 are currently held by Republicans, so they can't make any gains," Taylor says. "So this is really a four-year project for the Republican side, and I think that escalates the stakes, to a certain extent, for them."
Almost immediately after Margiotta lost his re-election bid, his supporters began rallying for Losurdo, saying they plan to do whatever is necessary to secure her win.
Losurdo has also taken to the airwaves with a TV commercial airing on the Fox News Channel and Time Warner Cable that questions Hill's recent vote against the new student assignment plan, saying that he wants to continue with forced busing.
"I do believe that if Kevin Hill is elected, they will change the control modules on that assignment plan," she says. "They won't uproot the whole thing, but they will then be busing children around based on test scores."
"I don't know where that's coming from," Hill says. "I have no intention of discarding this plan. I've been very public in that I generally support this plan, but we've got some tweaking that we need to do."
Hill's reason for voting against the plan, he says, was based on concerns about a lack of seating in high-performing schools that's supposed to be guaranteed for students in traditionally low-performing schools.
"I don't regret it at all," he says. "I have been consistent about how I was going to vote and why I was going to vote for a month leading up to the vote."
He says Losurdo was opposed to the plan before the election and could not support it but changed her mind after the board approved the measure Oct. 18.
"I think the fact that my opponent also opposed the plan but is now in favor of the plan, she is probably, in my opinion, putting politics first and students last," he says.
Losurdo says Hill's "no" vote says the same about him. He was one of two Democrats who voted against the plan. Two other Democratic board members and four Republicans voted in favor of it.
"When the vote was taken, it was a very nice bipartisan vote," she says. "It should have been about what's best for the community. My opponent voted against it, and I think that really says something. He has championed over the years that busing kids around our county is a solution to our problems."
Both say they hope voters will see the real issues through the political cloud by Election Day.
"What I need to do is stay focused on who I am, what I bring to the table," Losurdo says. "I will continue to champion for stability and family-friendly (policies) and increasing our student achievement. I am an advocate of public schools, and I will continue to champion for that."
Hill says he hopes voters will look not at one vote out of hundreds that he's cast but at his experience after 35 years of working with students, parents and educators and what he would offer as the only educator with K-12 experience on the new board.
"Hardly a decision goes by that doesn't have a direct impact in the classroom, and I think it takes an educator to connect those dots between the decisions that are made and how they will impact the classroom," he says.