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Craven Schools partisan election bill passes on a party-line vote

Screen shot of the Craven County Board of Commissioners meeting

By Randy Foster / New Bern Now

Craven County commissioners voted Republicans against Democrats to seek local legislation that would change how local school board members are elected, from non-partisan to partisan.

The legislation also seeks a change that will have school board members elected only by their districts, rather than in a county-wide general election.

The local delegation of State Rep. Steve Tyson and State Sen. Norm Sanderson will be asked to sponsor the legislation.

If it passes the General Assembly and makes it through the governor’s office, the change will take effect in 2022, although won’t affect terms of any school board members whose terms extend beyond 2022.

Nearly 40 people spoke during a public hearing that lasted about five hours Monday night. The vote, held just before midnight, was 5-2, with all Republican members of the board voting for it, and all Democrat members voting against it.

You can watch the meeting here.

In addition to those who spoke at Monday’s public hearing, Craven commissioners received 80 emails in support of partisan school board elections and 47 emails supporting non-partisan school board elections.

Odds are high that the legislation will be successful. Republican-led county boards across the state have been successfully seeking such changes.

Craven County’s school board, nominated by district in the primaries and elected county wide in the general election, has one unaffiliated member and all the rest are Democrats, even though Republicans and unaffiliated voters lead in voter registration in the county.

Here are highlights from the public hearing:

School Board Chairwoman Francis Boomer said the issue directly affects the governance of the school system, its13,000 students, and their families.

Critics say the change would lock out military and federal workers from seeking school board office due to a law that bars them from seeking office in partisan elections.

In Craven County, about 21 percent of enrolled students come from families with military or federal government ties.

It would also put unaffiliated candidates at a disadvantage when they seek office as party candidates receive financial assistance from their respective parties.

Bob Brinson of Cypress Shores, during the public hearing, said the Craven School Board publishes little information about the issues they discuss or the decisions that they make.

He said parents and county commissioners have been asking for information about school closures due to COVID-19 and alleged that the school district has been unresponsive.

Former State Rep. Alice Underhill, who served on the school board when the city and county school districts merged, said there is no positive need to change. “It is not broken,” she said.

Rick Hopkins is chairman of CCTA (Coastal Carolina Taxpayers Association), a conservative organization that he called “non-partisan.” He ran unsuccessfully for a school board seat. Arguing for a partisan school board, he said, “What have you got to hide?”

Hal James, also with CCTA, said the top 27 races on the ballot were won by Republicans whose party was identified in Craven County. The next seven, where party was not listed, were all won by Democrats, including school board. He said the school board is very partisan.

Nelson McDaniel, a retired educator, spoke against the measure.

“We’re talking about a sacred charge, something too important to be affected by labels, including party labels. If people need to know more about them, let’s solve that problem and not approach it just with party labels.”

Susan Jackson Cook, also speaking against the measure, said, “Many people have spoken about how most of our school board members happen to be Democrats. They were elected on a non-partisan basis and apparently the voters were quite satisfied with them as they elected them. Do you really want to politicalize our school board elections and the future of our children? We had differing views, no doubt. We need to come together.”

Bailey Evans, a local preschool teacher, said, nuance will not be possible if party strings are attached, independent candidates will be at a disadvantage against candidates with access to party funds, and state and national politics will have an impact on local schools.

“Candidates will be more focused on power than policy,” she said.

Katherine Adolph, a retired school principal, said, “We’re not here to talk about ways to improve public schools. We’re here to talk about partisan politics under the guise that it will make voting easier for the voters.”

Brenda George, also speaking against, said, “This proposal has one goal from my point of view, and that is it has the purpose and effect of obtaining a greater political advantage for the party in power. That has been verified for me and confirmed by many of the comments that I have heard in support of this legislation. There is obviously a reason that the school board in Craven County has comprised the way it is and I don’t think it is just that the voters don’t know the candidates’ party affiliations.”

Despite push cards and door knocking, it didn’t seem to change the outcome of the election, she said.

Non-partisan elections help to eliminate the extreme candidates from the process, and winning candidates are more likely to act for the common good, she said. They are also more free to express their true beliefs and not what their party tells them, she said.

Bernard George said the county is split, possibly three ways. “One of the parties did not field good candidates.”

In all, 35 citizens spoke, 17 for and 18 against.

Following the public hearing, Commissioner E.T. Mitchell commented that she doesn’t believe politics belong in the classroom, but the other part of the legislation, which would have school board members be elected at the district level, is a good measure.

“Countywide elections make it very difficult to know the candidates and what they stand for,” she said.

She said the current system doesn’t hold the school board accountable. She said she has been deluged by parents saying schools need to be open during the pandemic.

She said she believes the school system should have been open to the maximum level allowed, but wasn’t.

A lot of parents without resources need schools open. “I feel their pain,” said Mitchell, who at one time was a single mother.

When these parents talked to the Board of Education, the board was not responsive, they were not accountable, Mitchell said.

“How do we make the board accountable to the citizens of this county?” Mitchell asked.

Commissioner Beatrice Smith, newly appointed to the county board after serving on the school board, spoke last.

“Schools should be non-partisan,” she said. “I have not heard anything tonight or in the past that has made me change my mind. When the words fell on my ears I was amazed at misinformation, twisted information, lack of informational and lack of consideration for all students. I was astonished when I heard what I considered to be unfair unnecessary statements about public schools and the election of public-school board members.

“I said last Monday and I say tonight that is happening here gives me heartburn, it gives me heartburn because if you are telling your truth, I am looking out a different window,” she said.

Commissioner George Liner did not speak during the allowed period and was not allowed to make a statement as the votes were cast, but did say it was a hard decision.