With just a month to go until the May 6 primary, there’s a lot of debate about which candidates are ducking debates and why. But the most interesting debate recently is the one Jack Nichols, a Democratic candidate in state Senate District 16 (West Raleigh/ Cary), is having with himself over whether or not to elect some Wake County school board members at-large. So far, he’s taken both sides.

Two weeks ago, Nichols proposed a complete realignment of elections for Wake’s county commissioners and school board. Right now, all seven commissioners are elected at-large in the even-numbered years; the nine school board members are elected in districts in the odd-numbered years. Under Nichols’ plan, the commissioners and school board would have the same number of members (he didn’t specify how many), and they’d run at the same time in the odd-year electionswhich is when Raleigh and Cary also hold their municipal elections. Each would have a mix of district and at-large members.

“Make the number of [members] identical on each Board with members predominantly elected from districts, and some at-large representation,” Nichols said in a press release on March 19.

The same day, the Independent reported Nichols’ plan as part of a story about the push by some in western Wake County to elect the entire school board at-large. Nichols’ campaign included an excerpt of the story in an e-mail bulletin to its supporters. That’s when the trouble started.

Electing school board members at-large is a mainly Republican idea, one aimed at creating “neighborhood schools,” regardless of their economic or racial segregation, and doing away with the long-standing board policy in favor of diverse student bodies at every school. Nichols heard from supporters that it wasn’t an idea he should be pushing in a Democratic primary.

One person who called was Susan Parry, a former school board member who hosted a fundraiser recently for Nichols. Parry says she told him that synchronizing the elections is a good idea, but that electing any school board members at-large “will do nothing except ensure that some board members have to run in big-money political campaigns.”

The message, Nichols said on March 31, was: Don’t mess with the school board’s “traditional dynamic” that weighs district needs against a countywide policy of making every school successful. Electing school board members at-large could upset that balance, and perhaps violate the Voting Rights Act, which frowns on elections in which white majorities can overwhelm majority-minority districts, he acknowledged. “That’s the reason I’m not in favor of it.”

He’s not in favor of the thing he proposed, in other words. Nichols now says the important thing in his plan is to have candidates for the county commission and school board “running in the same districts at the same time and talking to voters at the same candidate forums.”

“The county commissioners and the school board have been sniping at each other for the last 15 years” over funding and diversity issues, Nichols says, and it’s easy for them to do since they’re never on a platform together. What’s worse, the commissioners’ elections are highly politicized, since they run countywide in state and national election years, which means that it takes $50,000-$100,000 to win a county commission seat. “My main thrust is shifting the elections to the off-years and to align the districts.”

The only way he’d support any at-large school board members, Nichols adds, is if it results from “the consensus-building process” that would be necessary to get election-law changes enacted by the General Assembly. He put it on the table “as an option” only, and now thinks that if even one or two school board members were chosen at-large, both boards should have 11 members or more.

“I’m trying to start a dialogue, not become a political piñata,” Nichols quipped.

Meanwhile, his chief Democratic opponent, Josh Stein, has stood aside from the at-large school board question, albeit not without criticizing Nichols.

“Educating our children, living up to the letter and spirit of the Voting Rights Act, and having sound elections are all too important to create policy on the fly,” says Stein, a lawyer and aide to Attorney General Roy Cooper.

Akland vs. Malone

There’s a second Democratic Senate primary in Wake County that, to date anyway, has gotten virtually no media attention. It’s in District 14 (East Raleigh/ East Wake), where Ann Akland, a forceful critic of the state’s mental-health “reforms” since they were enacted in 2001, is challenging incumbent Sen. Vernon Malone. Akland was recognized by the Indy with a Citizen Award for her advocacy as chair of the Wake chapter of NAMIthe National Alliance for the Mentally Illin 2002.

District 14 is a “majority-minority” district, meaning that when it was created after the 2000 census, 62 percent of its registered Democrats (and 41 percent of all voters) were African American. Malone, a former county commissioner and longtime leader in Southeast Raleigh’s black community, won easily in 2002, ’04 and ’06, without primaries. But in the intervening six years, the East Wake side of the district has grown dramatically, and Akland is probably as well known in her hometown of Knightdale as Malone is in Southeast Raleigh.

Akland has ripped Malone for failing to lead as a member of the General Assembly’s oversight committee on mental health and developmental disability issues. Her critique is on her campaign Web site, www.annakland.com.

Malone’s never had a Web site, apparently, and he didn’t return our call asking for a response. However, in his Independent candidate questionnaire, Malone listed “health care” as one of his top three priorities and said: “It is vitally important that we focus on reforming our mental health system [to] ensure that mental health is covered by health insurance the same way physical health is.”