Partisan county board seeks input on non-partisan school board

A screen shot of a Craven County Board of Commissioners meeting.

By Randy Foster / New Bern Now

Some Republican members of the Craven County Board of Commissioners are pushing for a change in how school board members are elected and will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. today (April 5).

The meeting will be at New Bern Riverfront Convention Center at the intersection of East Front and South Front streets in New Bern. The meeting will also be live-streamed.

On tap: a resolution in support of partisan Board of Education elections.

Members of the Craven County Board of Commissioners are nominated by their parties in the primaries and go on to face all party nominees in the general election.

Members of the Craven County Board of Education run non-partisan at the district level in the primaries and the top vote-getters face each other in the general election. Party affiliation is not part of the school board election process.

It just so happens, however, that there are no Republicans on the school board (right now, at least). There is one independent and all the rest are Democrats, and therein lies the rub.

A screen shot of a Craven County Board of Education meeting.

County Commissioner Denny Bucher explains:

“My number one correspondence from voters in Township 7 in the past year has been issues with the Board of Education and Craven County Schools. When schools in neighboring counties were back in session ours were closed putting many parents in a difficult situation. Private Schools were back in the classroom and today have waiting lists. That means parents are willing to pay tuition in addition to their taxes. The largest piece of Craven County budget is for public schools. I do not have specific numbers but I have been told that enrollment in our county schools is down about 1,000 students from prior year. Something is wrong!

“Voters in November cast 53,065 votes for President, 51,563 for Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court, 52,521 for US Senate, and 51,250 for State Representative. School Board races were 41,275 for District One, 44,054 for District 3, and 42,740 for District 7. I believe the big drop-off in voting for School Board was the lack of knowledge of the candidates’ Party. Every race was partisan but School Board. I believe full disclosure is necessary and I wonder what the Democrats who are against the change are afraid of?

“The resolution calls for voting by District rather than county-wide. I believe the voters of District 7 should elect a Board Member to represent them, and not vote for candidates in other districts. The commissioners are elected by district – so should Board of Education Members.

“At the polls in November, a Democrat candidate was overheard saying she was the ‘conservative’ candidate. She also had Elephants on some of her campaign items. I believe that was deceptive and most likely allowed her to prevail. A D or an R on the ballot would prevent such behavior in the future.”

On the other hand, fellow Republican County Commissioner E.T. Mitchell has reservations. She declined to comment to New Bern Now about the issue, but went into detail an email that New Bern Now has received access to by a third party. In that email, Mitchell said:

“Some bad information was put into the slipstream. The BOC decision today was simply to hold a public hearing on 5 Apr, 7:00 pm, at the County Convention Center. Folks need to get there early because the PH seating will be limited due to COVID.

“The issue before BOC is twofold, although it is within one Resolution. 1) whether to make the Board of Education elections partisan, and 2) whether to make those BOE elections via ‘Districts’ vs County-wide.

“I support the concept of BOE elections by District. People within a given area will be better able to know and evaluate ‘their’ local candidates. With the best of all intentions, I know very little about BOE leadership from Vanceboro…Havelock…Cove City; I’m sure people from those areas would say the same about candidates in Trent Woods and River Bend. I understand the theory behind County-wide elections, but I’m not comfortable that it has worked so well in practice.

“I will tell you honestly that I am suffering a real crisis of conscience on the other topic. I do not believe that politics belong in public school board elections; we need child advocates, not Rs and Ds, in public education. I believe that public education should meet the needs of the entire community and reflect all points of view. I suspect that you – and many of your friends and colleagues – feel the same.

“I wake up every morning and see a different aspect of this issue.

“This is hard one,” Mitchell said.

For history and context, New Bern Now sister publication New Bern Post has the story here.