by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
We know that the issues that confront public school parents and local taxpayers vary from one school district to another. School board races highlight specific local concerns about property taxes, capital debt, school construction and renovation, student assignment, academic achievement, equity, diversity, transparency, accountability, enrollment changes, superintendent performance, and countless other matters. And the previous list does not account for the personal loyalties, professional relationships, and party politics that also play a role in school board elections.
This is not a typical election year, however. Community disagreements about the severity of the threat of coronavirus transmission in schools and plans to reopen school buildings to students and school personnel have reframed the district’s usual budgetary, academic, and operational affairs. Not only has COVID-19 introduced new challenges to the way that education is delivered, but it also laid bare existing structural and institutional deficiencies. And voters had a front-row seat. Would discontent over school reopening plans motivate voters to replace incumbents? In most cases, voters in the 79 school board races decided on Tuesday opted for the status quo.
Admittedly, Gov. Cooper put school board members in a bind. He allowed boards to make school reopening decisions but only within the parameters established by the NC Department of Health and Human Services. On July 14, Cooper announced that public schools would have the choice of reopening under Plan B (stringent health and safety protocols with moderate social distancing), Plan C (remote learning), or a combination of the two. That gave school boards only around four weeks to formulate their mid-August school reopening plans. They overwhelmingly chose to begin the school year with remote learning. In an August 31 article, Analisa Sorrells of EducationNC used a NC School Boards Association analysis to determine that “Roughly 70 of the state’s 115 school districts chose plan C, while the others have brought students back to the school building in some form or fashion.”
On September 17, Gov. Cooper permitted districts to open elementary schools using Plan A (standard health and safety protocols with minimal social distancing) starting on October 5. Most school boards announced plans to bring young children back to school campuses in October and through the remainder of the calendar year. Two notable exceptions were Guilford County Schools, which deferred its Plan A reopening decision until November 10, and Cumberland County Schools, which will remain in Plan C for the rest of the fall semester.
On Tuesday, voters in 79 of North Carolina’s 115 school districts selected school board members. According to a review of school board member listings on district websites, 44% of the 467 individuals who filed for a school board seat this year were incumbents, and 56% were not. Just under half (36 of the 79) races were partisan contests.
Before Election Day, I identified 11 bellwether school board races. They included the following:
Carteret County Board of Education
According to unofficial figures, Republicans swept the three open seats in Carteret. The single incumbent in the race, Travis Day, ran unopposed. Republican Katie Statler won the District 2 seat by a wide margin. Republican Dennis Goodwin easily beat Democrat Lucy Marino Bond for the District 3 seat.
Cumberland County Board of Education
Incumbents Alicia Chisolm, Deanna Jones, Carrie Sutton, Donna Blackmon Vann, and Susan Williams had easy victories. Incumbent Joe Sorce trailed two challengers, Nathan Warfel and Jean Brown Williams, in the competitive District 6 race.
Dare County Board of Education
Republicans went 4-4 in Dare County, with Republican Carl Woody earning a notable win over school board chair Democrat Bea Basnight.
Guilford County Board of Education
Of the four open seats, two were unopposed and won by Democrats. Republican incumbent Pat Tillman currently has an 88 vote lead over Democratic challenger Blake Odum in the District 3 contest. Unaffiliated candidate Deborah Napper leads Republican Michelle Bardsley by 187 votes in the District 5 race.
Lee County Board of Education
Two Republicans and two Democrats were elected to the Lee County school board. Currently, incumbent powerhouse Sherry Womack and her Republican colleague Sandra Bowen hold the top two spots. Incumbent Democrats Patrick Kelly and Lynn Smith occupied the third and fourth spots in this very tight race.
Lincoln County Board of Education
Incumbent Heather Rhyne beat three challengers for the at-large seat. Myra Heavner won the District 1 seat in a race with no incumbent. Christina Sutton ran away with the District 3 seat. Mark Mullen appeared to retain his District 4 seat on the school board.
McDowell County Board of Education
With most precincts reporting, Amy Moomaw and Donnie Suttles received the most votes in the competitive Marion District race. Incumbent Terry English is 69 votes ahead in the North Cove District. It was a runaway win for Beth Lolley Silver in the Old Fort District. Michelle Pupoh won the West Marion District.
Moore County Board of Education
Incumbent Stacy Caldwell cruised to victory in the District I race, but her fellow board member, Helena Wallin-Miller, fell short against Robert Levy. Challenger David Hensley earned a decisive victory against current board member Betty Wells Brown. The incumbent also lost in the District V race as Philip Holmes defeated John Weaver.
New Hanover County Board of Education
Two Democrats and one Republican are the top vote-getters in the New Hanover County school board race. Democrats Stephanie Walker and High McManus came in first and third, respectively. Republican Stephanie Kraybill was in the second spot.
Pitt County Board of Education
James E. Tripp, Jr., Don Rhodes, Worth Forbes, Melinda Fagundus, and Benjie Forrest were victorious. Fagundus and Forrest were incumbents that ran unopposed. In District 6, Forbes was the third sitting school board member in the race and holds a comfortable lead. Rhodes ran unopposed in District 4. Tripp is leading by 401 votes in the District 3 race.
Wake County Board of Education (of course)
In the most disappointing outcome of the evening, the only incumbent to lose a seat on the Wake County school board was Bill Fletcher in District 9. Karen Carter earned more votes than Fletcher and Daniel Madding combined. Rachel Mills nearly pulled off a victory against Chris Heagarty in District 7. Otherwise, incumbents ran unopposed or won by wide margins.
Among the races featured above, there was no apparent relationship between school reopening strategy and incumbent votes. Counties containing a critical mass of parents who were unhappy about school reopening plans, such as Wake County, did not replace incumbents en masse. Only one incumbent, Bill Fletcher, lost a seat on the Wake County school board. Cumberland County closed their school buildings until January, and five of the six incumbents were reelected. Moore County recently announced plans to transition to Plan A, but only one out of four incumbents survived. This outcome appeared to be driven by long-standing discontent with the Moore County Schools and successful grassroots efforts. In sum, school board races did not appear to be affected by the choice or execution of district reopening strategies.
Over the next few weeks, I will extend my analysis to school board races not included here, as well as offer additional context to the 11 school board contests highlighted above.