Local Politics

Questions raised over who fills seat of Wake school board member who died before re-election

Posted November 14, 2018 11:09 a.m. EST
Updated November 14, 2018 3:39 p.m. EST

— Despite the fact that she died in late September, Kathy Hartenstine handily won re-election to the Wake County Board of Education last week. What's not so clear is who will serve out her term on the board.

Hartenstine, who died unexpectedly, was unopposed for the District 7 seat on the school board, and she garnered 95 percent of the votes, according to unofficial results.

"The Board of Education has been operating with the understanding that it will be the body that fills the vacancy," Jonathan Blumberg, an attorney for the school board, said in a statement. "No other candidate other than Ms. Hartenstine filed for the position."

Blumberg noted that the school board has developed "a fair process" to select people to fill empty seats.

Hartenstine herself went through that process two years ago, when she was chosen to finish the term of District 7 representative Zora Felton, who died in November 2016. The 68-year-old Hartenstine had worked for 35 years as a teacher and a principal before serving on the board.

Gary Sims, Wake County's elections director, said the question now is whether Hartenstine's seat is vacant, or whether her death essentially disqualified her as a candidate. If the latter, a write-in candidate with the most votes could be declared the winner of the District 7 election.

"It’s a bit like rock, paper, scissors," elections board member Greg Flynn wrote in an email, noting three separate state laws address the situation.

State election law allows elected bodies to choose who will fill a vacant seat, but education law notes that voters cast for a dead school board candidate are ignored, and the next-highest vote-getter is elected, Flynn said. But the third law trumps the other two, he said, as it spells out that school board elections in Wake County should follow the elections law and not the education law.

The Wake County Board of Elections will meet Friday to certify the results of all local elections, and Sims said the board is scheduled to meet with its attorneys before that canvass occurs. Hartenstine's election could possibly be discussed in the closed-door meeting, he said.

"Right now, my focus and the board's focus is on making sure we have every vote accounted for," Sims said.