Candidates critical of law changing elections
Last week, Colington resident Jen Alexander announced her candidacy for the Dare County Board of Education from District 2, setting up a contest against incumbent Joe Tauber. And, in a major change from past school board elections, this one will not be resolved until November and the candidates will have their party affiliation listed on the ballot.
As the result of a law passed by the state legislature last year, what had been non-partisan Dare County School Board elections that were held on primary day are now partisan races that include party labels and will be contested in this year’s May 8 primaries and November 6 general election.
With the candidate filing period still a few weeks away, incumbent school board members Margaret Lawler and Joe Tauber have confirmed they are running for their seats, along with Alexander. And when interviewed by the Sentinel, they voiced concerns about the shift to partisan campaigns.
Board Vice Chair Lawler, a Democrat who represents District 3, said she is "saddened" by the change. "Politics has nothing to do with education," she said. "In my years of being on the board, I've never heard anyone say, 'I'm going to vote this way because of my party.'"
Tauber, a Republican, said he "would have preferred that [the system] go on as it had, because I was just running in one election."
Citing the new election calendar that means newly elected board members will take office in December rather than July, he added, "We used to take office at the beginning of the fiscal year for the school system…a lot of people have been talking about budget issues and other things, but at this point it's a done deal.”
Last June, the Republican-controlled N.C. General Assembly passed the law calling for nine counties to switch over to partisan school board elections — Dare, Hyde, Beaufort, Carteret, Cleveland, Madison, Haywood, Onslow and Pender.
Both Republican members of Dare County’s legislative delegation — State Senator Bill Cook and State Representative Beverly Boswell — were supportive of the switch to partisan campaigns, with Boswell sponsoring a House version of the measure.
“My view of transparency is that the voters have all the information possible,” asserted Boswell. “I believe the voters simply have a right to know the political ideology of whom they are electing to the board of education.”
Stating that the law was "politically motivated" as Republicans in the General Assembly "thought that this was going to be helpful to the party," Tauber added, "Right now. we have a sizable majority in the state, and the General Assembly wanted to make sure that people knew what party they're voting for, not only for the board of education, but for justices as well.”
While it’s hard to predict the impact on board of education races, Republicans dominate Dare County politics and in recent years have fared much better than Democrats in elections. Six of the seven current members of the Dare County Board of Commissioners are Republicans and, in 2016, Donald Trump swamped Hillary Clinton by more than 20 points in the county. Thus, local Democrats may be wary of what the new law portends.
As it was moving through the legislature last year, the measure mandating partisan elections was criticized by a number of county officials, including the Dare County Board of Education, as well as the Republican-dominated Dare County Board of Commissioners, with foes contending that it could unnecessarily politicize public education.
“I’ve been on the board for nine years now and partisanship has never come up,” said Board of Education Chair Bea Basnight last year. “We need to keep our focus on the education of students, keep the schools running and provide instruction on what the state tells us. I hope this [new law] doesn’t change anything.”
Charlotte White, a Democrat who represents District 1, told the Sentinel last week that she was "definitely opposed" to the change. "The years that I have been on the board, there certainly were Democrats and Republicans on the board, but that's never been an issue,” she asserted. “It's never come up in discussion and it has never affected how we vote for things. We've always put the children first. “
Alexander, also a Democrat, said she feels that "it's a shame that politics are going to be injected into education. I share the same beliefs as our current board and our commissioners that it isn't a good idea. I'm running as a parent and a social worker and just want to help kids and teachers in our community."
For her part, Lawler also emphasized that the previous electoral process meant that new board members were sworn in in July "and you were there for the end of the budget process and the beginning of the new school year. Now you will get sworn in in December, when school's half over."