Last month, the Durham-based partisan science data firm EQV Analytics published a report entitled “Can the GOP Take Over Blue Durham County’s Board of Education? (They’re Betting On It).”
Days later, INDY staffers began receiving emails expressing alarm about what’s being referred to as the “Better Board, Better Schools, Better Futures” (BBBS) slate of school board candidates.
Meghan Lyon wrote in an email that she and her husband reached out to District 3 school board candidate Gayathri Rajaraman to learn more about her platform.
“Her answers alarm me,” Lyon says.
Lyon and her husband aren’t the only Durham residents alarmed at the prospect of the BBBS’s so-called stealth slate capturing seats on the county school board.
“I worry that many Durham residents may think we are immune to these extreme conservative challenges to our school board since we are used to being in our blue Durham bubble,” wrote Rebecca Bramlett in an email. “But it’s not the case, and I hope people are paying attention.”
Not one of Durham’s three most influential political action committees has endorsed any of the five GOP candidates who are running for seats on the county school board, including the nonpartisan Friends of Durham (FOD) PAC.
“We interviewed all of the [BBBS] candidates and chose not to endorse them,” Durham attorney and FOD PAC cochair Patrick Byker told the INDY this week.
Byker says a combination of factors dissuaded the FOD from endorsing the GOP candidates.
First and foremost: the BBBS slate finds it easy enough to play armchair quarterback and fling a barrage of criticisms about the school board and Durham Public Schools (DPS) policies but offers next to nothing by way of problem-solving.
“We really expect candidates to have solutions for the problems they identify,” Byker says. “It’s easy to complain about a problem. It’s difficult to put forth sound thinking about how we as a community can support our superintendent and students and then identify and implement cost-effective solutions.”
There are also questions in the community about the ethics of BBBS’s campaigning, and whether they are abiding by the rules.
This week, Paula Januzzi-Godfrey, a Glenn Elementary School librarian and 2020 school board candidate, told the INDY she received a text Monday morning from a teacher at Merrick-Moore Elementary. The teacher had requested donations of copy paper on her neighborhood listserv and received some reams of paper at the school with stickers of the BBBS candidates’ faces, Januzzi-Godfrey told the INDY in an email.
“When I was running for school board it was made clear that I was not allowed to campaign, wear a button or sticker for my campaign on school premises, and no other teachers could either,” Januzzi-Godfrey wrote.
Based on some of the candidates’ social media posts, the BBBS slate might be best described with the letter Q followed by “Anon.”
Consider that Joetta MacMiller, who is campaigning for the Consolidated District B seat, announced on January 5, 2021, on social media that she had “arrived in DC” at the “Stop the Steal’’ rally that morphed into violence at the US Capitol, where a mob thought it apt to attack police officers and smear feces on the walls.
“It is going to be WILD!!!!!” MacMiller announced, echoing the words of the January 6 insurrection’s chief instigator, Donald Trump, who on December 19 tweeted, “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
One day later, MacMiller announced, “My group got tear gased [sic] but we are safe and on our way home to NC.”
MacMiller could not be reached for comment.
In late January, MacMiller and Proud Boy member John Fischer—who is running for a seat on the Johnston County school board—were among the attendees of a statewide education forum held by the far-right groups Education First NC, Moms for Liberty, and No Left Turn in Education. No Left Turn describes itself as “a movement to combat racial indoctrination in our K thru 12 education system.”
District 1 candidate Curtis Hrischuk is a Canadian immigrant who registered to vote for the first time in December.
Hrischuk, in an email to the INDY, derided a description of him by EQV Analytics as “an evangelical Catholic” who “reveals himself on Facebook to be an antisemitic, climate-denying, anti-vaxx creationist in favor of starving local governments (including our public schools) of revenue.”
Hrischuk told the INDY that he views “eqvanalytics.com as a satire or humor site and they aren’t worth my attention.”
An INDY review of Hrischuk’s Facebook page shows that on August 30, 2016, he posted a Breitbart story about George Soros “manipulating [the] government for his own very sick agenda.” The Breitbart story claims that Soros was an unseen participant in efforts to reform law enforcement agencies after Black people across the country died at the hands of the police.
“Quote of the day,” Hrischuk posted in 2016 on his Facebook page. “People can and should do everything they can to pay as little in taxes as possible.”
Valarie Jarvis is a school board District 4 candidate and GOP Durham County precinct chair who is married to Immanuel Jarvis, the county’s GOP chair, who declared in a July 2020 podcast that being a Black Trumpist is akin to being a “homosexual Black man in the ’70s in a southern state.” Regarding Black voters, he said, “If they had a cardboard box running for president, 85 percent of the African American community would vote for the box.”
Immanuel Jarvis, during the podcast, said he agreed with Donald Trump’s claim that he has done more for Black Americans than Abraham Lincoln.
“That’s pretty close,” Jarvis said, offering as an example his daughter being the recipient of a financial grant owing to a bill the former president signed into law. Jarvis said it was imperative that Black Americans move from “poverty to prosperity.”
The other two candidates are Christopher Burns, vying for the District 2 seat, who EVQ Analytics reports is an independent contractor “with zero employees” and who “pocketed over $30,000 in subsequently forgiven Paycheck Protection Program loans in 2020/2021,” and Rajaraman, who announced that she’s running for the school board at the behest of Immanuel Jarvis.
Rajaraman, like Burns, has a scant social media presence but told the INDY she doesn’t think younger students should learn about topics like the historical racism upon which the nation was largely built.
“Especially at elementary and middle school age, children’s brains are still growing, they are hungry to learn. They should be taught math concepts and science at an early age like they do in countries like India,” Rajaraman wrote. “Instead we are distracting and overwhelming them with social topics such as racism, [gender identity] and political viewpoints in school classrooms. We are dumbing our kids down while other developing nations are putting focus only on math, science, arts and STEM programs.”
Perhaps the short answer to Rajaraman’s concern has to do with Black Americans’ lived experience in a nation that has a long history of targeting the group with racism, bigotry, and violence. Last year, GOP legislators at the General Assembly sponsored House Bill 324 that proposed to make white people feel less uncomfortable about the negative aspects of the nation’s racial history.
It appears no one in the GOP considered how not teaching those aspects of the nation’s history would make Black students and the Black community at large feel uncomfortable. As the INDY previously reported, Durham’s city council and school board each adopted resolutions opposing HB 324. Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the bill on September 10.
Last year, the website Right Wing Watch warned of a far-right “campaign to stifle teaching and discussion about racism in U.S. history and institutions” with “fear mongering about critical race theory to mobilize right-wing activists and conservative voters to take over local school boards.”
“Critical race theory is an academic analytical framework for exploring the existence and impact of systemic racism,” Right Wing Watch writer Peter Montgomery explained. “Over the past year, the term has been aggressively deployed as a right-wing culture-war weapon that is being used to smear educators and social justice activists.”
School board chair Bettina Umstead, who is up for reelection in District 2, echoed Montgomery’s analysis.
“I’m worried that they are not prepared to do the equity work here in Durham County on behalf of Black and brown students who are in our schools,” Umstead told the INDY this week about the BBBS slate.
The current school board is cited on a watchlist by Turning Point USA (TPUSA), a conservative nonprofit that states its mission is to “educate, train and organize students to promote freedom.”
According to TPUSA, the Durham school board is “actively trying to indoctrinate children with Critical Race Theory (CRT) and other hateful, divisive and Anti-American curriculum.”
TPUSA also asserts the school board has undergone “extreme scrutiny for publicly supporting a resolution that teaches CRT to the students throughout the district.”
Well that’s a lie, plain and simple.
“No, we do not,” school board member Natalie Beyer says about TPUSA’s claim that DPS is teaching CRT—normally taught in law schools—to K-12 students. “But we very much believe and are focused on equity, and we are not shying away from this nation’s difficult history.”
Beyer, whom Valarie Jarvis is challenging in District 4, told the INDY this week that she has never seen the BBBS candidates at a school board meeting or received an email “about anything” from them during her board tenure.
“It’s highly unusual for Durham, and they haven’t been showing up,” she says. “They aren’t out in public, and they haven’t been to any of the forums,” she adds, save for a virtual meeting that was hosted by a community located off of Leesville Road.
Beyer says the slate is trafficking in “fearmongering” and divisiveness.
“It’s not about the schools,” she says.
A review of the GOP candidates’ website, betterboardbetterschools.com, gives scant information about what the group is proposing to create a more effective learning environment in the county’s public school classrooms.
Their campaign promise says that they “will ensure that every graduating student is prepared for the workforce or college. Our students are cheated by lowering standards and curriculum deviations that do not directly aid in the competition of the worldwide marketplace.”
Rajaraman and Hrischuk were the only candidates to respond to the INDY’s questions. Rajaraman says “school exists to educate our children” when asked about “curriculum deviations.”
Rajaraman’s concerns run counter to the state’s board of education strategic plan adopted in 2019 that defined equity as a guiding principle and recently approved social studies standards “to ensure that a more comprehensive, accurate and honest history was taught to all students, including teaching on racism, identity and discrimination.”
“It’s important for teachers to be able to teach children to think critically from primary sources,” Beyer told the INDY last year. “And as we are more honest about our history we can learn from the past. We don’t censor teachers. We don’t ban books. We teach children to be antiracist.”
The BBBS’s QAnon slate faces a Sisyphean task in the Bull City, where there are 233,225 registered voters and Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than five to one, according to the Durham County Board of Elections.
However, Durham also has 81,300 unaffiliated voters, along with 1,270 Libertarian voters. With a historically lower voter turnout for primary elections, “the BBBS slate is a highly organized campaign conceived, organized, launched and supported by the Durham County GOP, in hopes of slipping a bloc of Republicans under the voters’ radar to take control of the school board of one of the most heavily Democratic counties in the state,” according to the EQV Analytics report.
When the INDY asked what specific policies or measures the BBBS slate would implement to improve the academic performance of DPS students, Hrischuk began by stating that the current school board is failing its main mission: education.
“In my district four out of five students are not ready to move to the next grade,” Hrischuk wrote in an email. “That is 80 percent of students not ready for the next grade.”
Michelle Burton, president of the Durham Association of Educators, which did not endorse the BBBS slate, told the INDY that Hrischuk and his fellow GOP candidates are focusing on end-of-grade test scores that do not take into account a student’s classroom performance or their total portfolio of academic performance.
“What’s never mentioned is funding of the public schools adequately,” says Burton, who pointedly notes that the BBBS slate is not speaking in support of the Leandro case that has been hamstrung for decades by the state’s GOP legislators and that would give public schools $1.7 billion.
“No one is talking about that,” she says.
Last month, the state supreme court agreed to hear the case after GOP state controller Linda Combs asked the North Carolina Court of Appeals to throw out Wake County superior court judge David Lee’s November 10 order requiring her to fund the $1.7 billion plan to fully support public schools.
Burton thinks the mission of BBBS’s slate “is to alarm and scare people, and get us off focus from what’s really needed and that is funding our schools adequately.”
But can the BBBS slate win seats on the Durham County school board?
William Busa, the director of EQV Analytics, thinks so. He wrote in last month’s online report “that even here in deep blue Durham, it is not impossible that these five radical Republicans might just succeed in wrestling control of the school board away from Democrats, thanks to meticulous planning, sophisticated organization, a stacked deck of election law, and—most importantly—a flurry of industrial-strength deception.”
Busa says that part of the deception the BBBS’s slate is relying on is a state law that mandates county school board members “shall be elected on a nonpartisan basis”— that is, Busa wrote, “without limiting candidates to a single nominee from each party, and without listing candidates’ party affiliations on the ballot, and that school board elections shall be held during the state’s primary election rather than the November general election.”
Even more insidiously, Busa notes, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature has been “selectively chipping away at this non-partisan status for partisan advantage” by “passing special ‘local laws’ that make selected Republican-heavy counties’ school board elections partisan while leaving Democrat-heavy counties’ elections non-partisan, with the effect of promoting Republican control in GOP-heavy counties while enabling potential stealth-Republican inroads into Democratic counties.”
“Durham thus remains a ‘non-partisan’ school board, with its election on primary day … and its five Republican candidates, campaigning together under the brand name of the Better Board, Better Schools (BBBS) slate, are taking every advantage of this cloaking device,” Busa wrote.
Last week Busa told the INDY that he’s worked with several political campaigns in the past and typically looks up the party affiliation of candidates campaigning in nonpartisan races.
“That’s an oxymoron,” Busa said late last week. “They’re all partisan.”
Busa says he became interested in Durham’s school board races when he noticed that registered Republican candidates had filed to run in each of the five seats, and they all shared the same campaign address of their joint campaign treasurer, “the $1 million home of a county GOP precinct chair, C. Donald Stanger.”
“And they were all recruited by Immanuel Jarvis,” Busa explains. “It became very clear that they were working in concert to pull a fast one on Durham County and take control of the school board.”
Busa says what’s happening in Durham is part of a nationwide attempt by “Republican fascists” to take over school boards.
“We’re seeing it all over the state, all over the country, with even more and more due to the pandemic and schools reopening,” she says. “In my assessment they need to do the research to understand what’s really going on in education.”
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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.