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Power grab or reality: Lawmakers move to make more school board elections partisan

Posted April 20

In Wake County, candidates for school board run without party affiliation.

Since at least the 1990s, partisan politics haven’t had a place in most school board races in North Carolina. Historically, just a small minority of state’s 112 school boards have been elected on a partisan basis. But that may be changing. In the last five years, the state legislature has more than doubled the number of school boards elected on party lines.

Before 2013, there were fewer than ten school boards in the state that held partisan elections. Now there are 25, and maybe counting. This year, state Republican lawmakers have filed bills to add another ten boards to the list. Onslow County Republican George Cleveland recently got a measure passed in the House to make boards in his district partisan.

"Nonpartisanship is a fantasy, OK?" he said. "We have partisanship across the school boards, in the cities, the local delegations, the whole bit. It’s honesty. Let’s do what’s actually going on, and have the public understand who they’re voting for."

Other conservatives agree with Cleveland. Terry Stoops with the conservative John Locke Foundation said partisan labels give voters a better idea of candidates’ ideology. That can be especially helpful, Stoops said, in down-ballot races like school board.

"We have probably too many voters going to the polls without really having much information about the candidates to begin with, " he said. "That partisan label would provide at least some kind of information on the various stances that that school board member would have."

But many school boards oppose efforts to turn them partisan, saying they don’t want to be injected with dysfunctional, Washington-style politics. The North Carolina School Boards Association is against a Senate bill that would bring partisan elections to all school boards. The Association’s Leanne Winner said forcing school board candidates to run on a party ticket would limit the number of people who could run. It would exclude federal employees, for example, because the Hatch Act prevents them from running in partisan elections.

"We have heard from school board members who work for nonprofit associations who say they would be uncomfortable running in a partisan election," Winner said. "And the third group is we have a large number of school board members who are registered independents. And they would have to go through the petition process in order to get their names on the ballot."

What’s more, Winner said when it comes to local school decisions, it’s hard to boil down candidates’ views and priorities to a simple 'R' or 'D.'

Leslie Boyd agrees. She’s a Democrat and federal employee who joined the nonpartisan Union County school board in 2014.

"Of course just like with any board, there’s nine of us so we don’t always agree," Boyd said. "But nothing major. It’s never like 'Democrats against Republicans.' It’s never anything like that."

The Union County school board passed a resolution to support efforts to turn it partisan, saying it would make members more reflective of voters’ ideology. Boyd was one of three who voted against the resolution. She says having an 'R' or a 'D' next to her name would distract voters from her experience and stance on local issues—a lesson she learned talking to one voter she met on the campaign trail.

"She said to me ‘I know you’re a Democrat, but since this is a nonpartisan race, I will vote for you. I will put a yard sign in my yard'," Boyd recounted. "She goes ‘But had this been a partisan vote, and had there been a 'D' next to your name... I would not have voted for you'."

Wake County Democratic Representative Rosa Gill said she thinks state Republicans are pushing these bills through because they know that in many counties they have an edge in partisan races.

"I think this is sort of like a power grab," Gill said. "All of the bills that are being put forth are being put forth by the leading party, and we know that there is an effort nationwide to make all local elections partisan."

Rep. Cleveland said his bill has nothing to do with a national GOP effort to sweep up seats in local races.

Cleveland and other Republicans have filed bills to make not only school boards partisan, but also municipal elections. Lawmakers have already passed legislation this session to bring partisanship to judicial elections.

North Carolina's Partisan School Boards:

Alleghany County

Anson County

Bladen County

Brunswick County

Cherokee County (2016)

Clay County (2016)

Davie County (2016)

Duplin County (2012)

Forsyth County-Winston Salem

Graham County

Guilford County (2016)

Greene County

Harnett County

Iredell County (2016)

Jones County

Lee County

Lenoir County

New Hanover County

Rutherford County (2016)

Rockingham County (2018)

Stanly County (2016)

Swain County

Transylvania County (2018)

Vance County

Washington County

Nonpartisan School Boards Being Considered For Partisan Elections In General Assembly:

Beaufort County

Carteret County

Dare County

Haywood County

Hyde County

Madison County

Onslow County

Pender County

Rowan-Salisbury Schools

Union County

Yancey County


This report first appeared on WUNC/North Carolina Public Radio as part of its education coverage. Jess Clark is the Fletcher Fellow focused on education policy reporting. The Fletcher Fellowship is a partnership between WUNC and UNC’s School of Media and Journalism funded in part by the Fletcher Foundation. Articles produced by the Fletcher Fellow are considered to be "open content” that others can republish with permission.

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