by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
On Tuesday, voters in seven of North Carolina’s 115 school districts selected school board members. Initially, nine districts planned to hold school board elections this year, but Lexington City Schools and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools rescheduled board of education elections to 2022. There were no partisan races, and 11 of the 13 school board seats on the ballot had multiple candidates.
Predictably, turnout was low, and I suspect that it will not exceed 20% once all ballots are counted. One way to address low turnout is to hold school board elections on even-numbered years. In 2022, North Carolinians will elect members to Congress, North Carolina General Assembly, and state courts. These high-profile races are more likely to bring voters to the polls, thereby boosting down-ballot municipal races.
In Burke County, ten candidates ran for four school board seats. Challenger Tiana Sims defeated chair and long-time board member Buddy Armour in the Central District race. Leslie Taylor defeated Scott Lambert for the Eastern District seat. Voters selected Aaron Johnson and recently appointed incumbent Jane Sohovich to represent the Western District. According to election night tallies, Sohovich beat challenger Seth Hunt by only 100 votes. In October, Armour and Sohovich voted to continue the Burke County Schools mask mandate. Sims, Taylor, and Johnston campaigned together and support a mask-optional policy. Sohovich continues to support a mask mandate.
Two school districts in Catawba County, Hickory Public Schools and Newton-Conover Schools, elected board members. Only two of the four races for seats on the Hickory school board were competitive. Incumbents Sarah Ferrell Temple and Ittiely Carson ran unopposed for their seats. Sixteen votes were enough to give Keyhisa Hannah the victory over retired teacher Brian Siemering in Ward 5.
Former teacher Amanda McGuire soundly defeated Phyllis Michaux for the Ward 1 seat. McGuire and Michaux had similar views on improving student performance and collaborating with parents, but their opinions of a potential vaccine mandate differed. Michaux commented that she had “a lot of confidence that the government would not make a bad decision when they make it a mandate.” McGuire was more circumspect about a vaccine mandate.
Newton-Conover had competitive races for the three available seats on its board of education. Incumbent Robbie Gonzales cruised to victory in the Conover District seat. Incumbents Tom Hayes and Phil Heath will represent the Newton District. In August, all three voted for a mask-optional face-covering policy, but they later voted to make masks mandatory in response to increases in COVID-19 cases. At least two of the challengers, Tracie Dagenhart and Greg Cranford, contended that the sitting board members erred by refusing to mandate masks from the beginning.
Asheboro City Schools in Randolph County had seven candidates competing to fill four seats on its school board. Incumbents Baxter Hammer and Beth Knott, along with Adam Hurley and Hailey Trollinger Lee, won seats on the board. All four candidates had the support of the Randolph County Republican Party. Randolph Record reported, “masks mandates, vaccines requirements and critical race theory [were] key issues” in the race. Indeed, Randolph County Republican Party Chairman Rick Smith recently sent a letter to supporters that described concerns about the adoption of critical race theory in Asheboro City classrooms and urged them to vote for the Republican-backed candidates.
The Roanoke Rapids Graded School District in Halifax County elected three members to its board of trustees. Voters selected Carol Dean, Ed Liverman, and Mike Williams to serve on the board. Liverman and Williams are incumbents. Their fellow board member, Joey Briggs, was the odd man out. In September, the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District Board of Trustees voted to require masks for all students and staff.
The most competitive school board race in North Carolina was in Iredell County. Seven candidates filed to fill two seats on the Mooresville Graded School District school board. Greg Whitfield and Rakeem Brawley earned seats on the Mooresville Graded Board of Education. Whitfield was the only incumbent on the ballot. In a win for progressives, Whitfield and Brawley championed mask mandates and compulsory diversity training for teachers.
While Mooresville Graded had the most competitive race, Chapel Hill-Carrboro’s school board election garnered the most attention. A hit piece published by the News & Observer, “Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board candidate faces questions about GOP ties, donations,” focused on Meredith Pruitt. Pruitt is a vice president at UNC Health and the only registered Republican running for a seat on the board. The article did not accuse Pruitt of improprieties because there are none. Instead, it offered details about her donors and attempted to tie Pruitt to political controversies in North Carolina and beyond.
A particularly appalling part of the News & Observer article was allowing outgoing school board member Lisa Kaylie to question Pruitt’s motives. Kaylie remarked, “I just look at it and think, well, this person hasn’t ever been involved in our schools before and now they have a significant amount of money donated to them and a lot of it is from out of state, so it does seem to be an interesting decision for her to be making and for her donors to be making.” To their credit, the other candidates running for seats did not comment on Pruitt’s GOP ties and donations. Then again, Kaylie and News & Observer reporter Tammy Grubb did it for them.
Unsurprisingly, voters selected status-quo progressive candidates Riza Jenkins, George Griffin, and Mike Sharp for the three vacant seats on the school board. According to profiles of each candidate in Indy Week, they share a desire for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, seek to reduce the presence of police and school resources officers in Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, and aspire to reduce massive disparities in student outcomes by race and socioeconomic status.
Parents have legitimate concerns about coronavirus mitigation strategies, instructional materials containing elements of critical race theory or related social justice ideologies, and even sexually explicit books in libraries. The latest Civitas Poll asked parents to grade their school board’s response to politicization in the classroom and concerns about masks and COVID-19 vaccinations. Over half (52%) gave their school board a “D” or “F” grade for addressing parental concerns about politicization. Just under half (47%) gave the boards a “D” or “F” for addressing parental concerns about masks and vaccinations. Few respondents awarded top marks to districts.
Parental discontent is also politically salient. That should be the primary takeaway from the Virginia gubernatorial race between Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin and Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe’s campaign featured an anti-parent narrative designed to bolster a political and institutional establishment threatened by the prospect of greater parental participation and autonomy. Youngkin won because he appealed to disgruntled parents by pledging to address their many grievances. Never doubt the power of angry moms and dads.
Note: All results are unofficial until canvassing is completed.