There are a plethora of events in Wake County I could write about this week. The ramming-through of the Downtown South development despite affected property that consistently sees flooding. INDY Week’s vapid and condescending endorsement of Raleigh’s Affordable (for the middle class when displacing the underclass) Housing Bond. A poll worker’s recent assault by a Republican “poll observer” and the calamitous response of the Wake County GOP.
But, in my mind, the most pressing issue involves the Wake County Board of Education election. If you have moved to Wake County in the last 10 years, which data suggests a whole lot of you have, then you may not have the full story of why this race is so important.
There are currently five conservative candidates looking to become the new majority on the WCBOE. While only three of the seven challengers have experience in the education sector, those that don’t have some fascinating résumés.
Rachel Mills, who’s running against Chris Heagarty for District 7 (encompassing West Raleigh and Morrisville), was the press secretary for Republican Senator Ron Paul for five years before becoming a real estate agent. On her campaign Facebook page, there is a photo of her wearing a “Trump 2020” T-shirt.
Steve Bergstrom and Gregory Hahn (running against Lindsay Mahaffery for Southern Wake’s District 8 and Monika Johnson-Holster for Southeast Wake’s District 2, respectively) are both military veterans who are enthusiastic about the Wake County Public School System’s controversial School Resource Officer program.
Hahn has been especially supportive of police in schools, receiving an endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police Wake County Lodge #41. The SRO program has been under fire since its inception for instances of excessive force against students, from a child being pepper-sprayed while restrained in 2008 to a young girl being body-slammed in 2017, which was caught on video and went viral. There are also egregious disparities in how Black and white students are disciplined; WCPSS was under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for almost a decade after the NAACP and the Southern Coalition of Social Justice filed a complaint.
Karen Carter (challenging Bill Fletcher of Cary and Apex’s District 9) and Deborah Prickett (running against Heather Scott for Eastern Wake’s District 1) both have experience in education, but their platforms are vague, and their true intentions can only be known by their past decisions in leadership. While Carter doesn’t have a record to pull from, Prickett was one of the architects for the school-assignment plan that destroyed Wake County’s celebrated diversity policy. She and the rest of the conservative challengers in the 2009 WCBOE race were all backed by Art Pope, right-wing megadonor and current chair of the UNC Board of Governors.
Prickett says she believes all children should have access to good schools, but she has not committed to reinstating a diversity policy for school reassignment plans. She and her fellow challengers are also reticent about increasing the WCPSS budget, even though the ruling from the landmark Leandro case deemed a budget increase essential to creating equity in school achievement.
Part of the reason Wake County’s population grew by 43.5 percent from 2000 to 2010 is that we had schools that were diverse, accomplished, and staffed by enthusiastic and well-resourced teachers. In 2009, through the efforts of conservative multi-millionaires and opportunistic community members, that legacy was trashed. Now another group of conservative challengers is seeking to do it again. Nearly every GOP candidate praises alternatives to traditional public schools, like charters, private schools, and even homeschooling. But in Wake County, school board members don’t have jurisdiction over these schools. Why spend time talking about something that you cannot contribute to through your role as a board member?
As in 2009, these individuals claim to want to give a voice to “Wake County parents,” but many parents are left out. When Hahn referred to the Education Justice Alliance as an “outside group” in a recent article, he neglected to say that the EJA is comprised almost entirely of parents and caregivers of WCPSS students. These new challengers do not seek the well-being of all our students when over half of the school population are students of color. And there is a unified call to shut down the WCPSS Office of Equity Affairs. Bergstrom is especially vocal in his disdain for school lessons that include Black Lives Matter or the 1619 Project, echoing Trump’s sentiments in referring to them as “politically motivated lessons” and saying that the school board should take “a strong stand against activism in the classroom.”
The lack of integrity in our history classes plays a major role in the racial strife we see today. Who would we be as a nation if we learned that George Washington’s dentures were not made of wood but teeth pulled from the mouths of the living people he owned as property? Or that the FBI sent letters to Martin Luther King Jr.’s home urging him to commit suicide? Understanding these truths might have allowed us to change the inequities that still cost our country trillions of dollars and countless lives. It has taken us 10 years to begin rebuilding what the conservative board from 2009 destroyed. We must not move backward again.
Correction: Rachel Mills was Ron Paul’s press secretary for five years, not four, and Paul was a Republican at the time, not a Libertarian.
COURTNEY NAPIER is a Raleigh native, community activist, and co-host of the podcast Mothering on the Margins. Comment on this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Voices is made possible by contributions to the INDY Press Club.