This story originally published online at UNC Media Hub.
One local bill at a time, state lawmakers have nearly tripled the number of partisan school boards across the state over the last decade — often over the objections of school board members themselves.
It’s a move some board members say is turning their school system from a hyperlocal, traditionally apolitical governing board into a contentious microcosm of national political debates.
“Republicans now retain a 5-2 majority of this board, the first time Republicans have held a majority on this board in anyone’s memory,” Jennifer Dacey, a newly-elected school board member in Craven County said after Republicans swept the county’s first partisan board election in decades.
To Carr Ipock, a registered Democrat who has served on the Craven County school board for over 30 years, it sounded more like “This day, the Republicans have taken over the school board and we are here to fix this system,” he said.
With the introduction of partisan labels, the 2022 Craven County school board campaign marked a striking departure from precedent.
“There was more focus on national agenda items than there was on ‘What can we do to make the school system better?’” Ipock said.
Republican legislators argue that partisan elections help voters make more informed decisions by giving them an idea of a candidates’ philosophy via their party identification.
“I don’t really see the harm in it because all you’re really doing is giving those voters more information,” House Speaker Tim Moore said.
More than 1 in 3 school boards now elect their members in partisan elections — 10 years ago, it was 1 in 10. Since achieving majority control in the state legislature in 2010, Republican lawmakers have gradually shifted the makeup of school boards by filing local bills — legislation that affects fewer than 15 counties and does not require approval from the governor.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s office did not respond to a request for comment, though Democrats have generally opposed efforts to turn boards partisan in recent years.
In this legislative session alone, Republicans have filed bills that would make at least nine more school boards partisan. Republican candidates for president, senator and governor all received the majority vote in 2020 in the counties these boards are located in.
In the 2022 midterms, nearly 3 in 4 partisan school boards elected more Republicans than Democrats.
“In the short run, it makes it more likely that conservative policies will carry the day in school boards,” Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University, said. “In the long run, it builds a farm team of Republicans who might one day want to run for higher office.”
Efforts to make all school board races partisan at once have been halted by top Republicans. In 2019, Moore did not support the Partisan Elections Act, which would have made every single North Carolina election a partisan race.
“The balance is where is partisanship appropriate, where does it go too far,” Moore said. “I generally like and I have supported for example, in my own county, making those elections partisan because it gives more information to the voter.”
In a heavily-Democratic county, Republicans are proposing doing the opposite. Rep. Erin Paré filed HB 99 last month, aiming to make Wake County’s Board of Commissioners nonpartisan. The board is composed of entirely Democratic members.
Asked if Republicans’ positions regarding partisan elections were inconsistent, Moore said,
“It’s not the way I would file it in my district, in my county — we defer to members all the time on their local bills.”
The potential advantage to Republican candidates isn’t the only concern critics have with partisan school boards.
Local offices like school boards have often attracted unaffiliated candidates, being one of the only elected offices where they actually have a chance to beat out Republicans and Democrats. Blair Craven, chair of the Henderson County Board of Education, has served as an unaffiliated member of the board since his first election in 2016.
“In my seven years of being on the school board, I’ve never made a decision that I believe is Republican in nature or Democratic in nature,” he said.
In February, the Republican-led Henderson County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution asking the legislature to make the school board partisan. Craven and the other members of the board, said they were never contacted about it.
The school board reached out to their state lawmakers, asking for input before the bill was crafted. A day later, Republican Sen. Timothy Moffit filed the bill without speaking to them.
“No teachers that I’ve talked to, no administrators that I’ve talked to in Henderson County think it’s a good idea,” Craven said. “But they don’t seem to care.”
Asked if he had any comment on the lack of input from the school board, Moffit said. “Not really, because again at the end of the day, my job is not — I like to hear folks’ impression of the bill, but the solution to the problem may appear to make it partisan but it’s really not that, it’s about getting folks informed on the people that they’re voting for.”
Moffit said the party label gives voters more insight into the ideology of the candidates they’re voting for, especially in underfunded local races.
“When you look at down ballot races, per se, typically, the candidates for those races rarely put together a campaign committee, they very rarely raise enough money to put on a campaign to inform the voters of who they are and what they stand for,” he said. “So the easiest way to help them is to make sure that they represent party affiliation next to their name on the ballot.
Craven isn’t convinced.
“I’m a huge fan of information for voters,” he said. “But I believe if the only information you have on a school board election is whether someone has an “R” or a “D” or an “I” by their name, then you’re not doing your homework.”
If the bill passes, Craven’s reelection prospects become more difficult. Either he switches to an official party, or gathers thousands of signatures to appear on the ballot as an unaffiliated candidate.
“And if there’s one thing we know about partisan elections, it’s that unaffiliated candidates don’t win,” Cooper said.
The move to partisan elections also comes at a time when unaffiliated has become the most popular party identification in North Carolina. According to the most recent data from the State Board of Elections, more than 35% of NC voters are unaffiliated. Democrats make up 33% of voters and Republicans make up 30%.
There’s another legal wrinkle to partisan elections — one that ended up disrupting the Republican primaries in Craven County last year.
Michael Genovese, an employee at a Marine Corps air station in Havelock, ran for the Craven County school board as a Republican. Several months into the campaign though, he found out that, if he won and assumed the seat, he’d be violating federal law. Under the Hatch Act, federal employees are prohibited from holding partisan office.
As of last year, the federal government had more than 75,000 employees in North Carolina according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. All of these workers are ineligible to hold a partisan office.
Genovese dropped out — but won the primary anyway — meaning he had to decline the nomination and allow the county GOP to submit a new candidate. His replacement won, as did every other Republican candidate for the Craven County school board.
Although Ipock is a registered Democrat, he won his last term before the board became partisan — making him one of the only current board members left without an official party.
“For 30 years, I never heard discussions at the table that sounded partisan — we had differences of opinions… but it wasn’t about something that was political,” he said.
Now, the board has seen an outpouring of parents at meetings, some demanding book bans or denouncing older members for requiring masks when the COVID pandemic began.
Due to a districting complication, Ipock is unable to run for reelection after his term ends in 2024 — something he said he and his wife are now very happy about.
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