Two years ago, Wake County Board of Education member Jim Martin decided not to run for reelection. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck.

“I actually had not been planning to run two years ago, but I was asked to help bring some stability to the board,” Martin says. “[Now], I feel like it’s time to pass the baton. I do not believe in strict term limits, [but] I do believe no one is indispensable. [Governing is] a relay race.”

Martin, who was first elected in 2011, is one of Wake County’s longest-serving school board members. And it’s for exactly that reason he decided to leave his seat open for newcomers, he says. When Martin first ran for office, he planned on serving no more than a decade. As of today, it’s been 11 years.

Martin isn’t the only school board member stepping down before the November election. He is one of five members to bow out of the race this year, leaving the school board poised for a major political shift.

Martin (District 5), Christine Kushner (District 6), Heather Scott (District 1), Roxie Cash (District 3), and Karen Carter (District 9) have all declined to run for reelection, leaving five seats open.

Despite popular belief, each incumbent has their own reasons for leaving, and it’s not the increase in hostility, name-calling, and threats at school board meetings. Although voters seem more divided than ever, Martin says the atmosphere surrounding local politics hasn’t changed much.

“Frankly, the craziness is not a whole lot different than when we ran back in 2011,” he says. “There was a lot of hostility, and that was a very controversial race. I think issues change. Why people get upset changes, but there was a lot of instability in [2011]. I had been planning to pass the baton long before this current wave of partisan intensity flared.”

Martin says partisan politics first started infiltrating the school board around 2009. It was then that national issues became talking points in local races. In his view, partisan politics has no place in the work of the school board. The school board should be nonpartisan and members should be “thinking about education,” he says.

“​​The 2009 election was really, for the first time, [when] the Wake County Board of Education became a political tool of a particular extreme end of a political party,” Martin says. “That’s what created the friction that is, sadly, repeating itself.”

Today, the conversation dominating the school board race is about “parent rights,” an umbrella term that encompasses efforts to ban books with Black, brown, and LGBTQ perspectives; campaigns to prevent issues of race from being taught in schools; and anti-mask, anti-vaccine sentiment.

The newfound movement was born during the COVID pandemic, as some parents objected to school closures and the health requirements put on their children. Today, it’s bloomed into an all-out culture war, including hot-button political topics discussed nationwide.

At least nine candidates for the Wake County school board, including one running in every district, espouse “parent rights” on their websites. It’s a position that’s worrying several current school board members.

“I’m really concerned, to be perfectly honest,” says Scott, the District 1 representative. “It really concerns me that in a midterm year, at a time when a lot of people are feeling disenfranchised … a low-turnout election does have the potential to put people in school boards here in Wake and across the country who are not actually supporters of public education. It terrifies me, as a parent.”

Criticism from parent rights activists was one small factor in Kushner’s decision to depart, the 11-year board member in District 6 wrote in an op-ed for The News & Observer.

“Too many people, under a guise of ‘parent rights’ with no mention of parent responsibilities, are playing games to undermine public education and public school educators. These critics create false narratives around public schools and launch personal attacks against elected officials,” Kushner wrote. “I have endured two years of these angry, inwardly-focused critics. At times, that criticism has seemed overwhelming and isolating. That is one reason why I am now passing the baton—I see this intense and rewarding public service as a relay, not a marathon.”

Polarization is not good for the community, Kushner adds in an interview with the INDY. She’s hoping new candidates can address that divisiveness, especially since they don’t have the same history of conflict with some community members.

What’s next for these political leaders?

The factors driving incumbents to step down from the school board are similar—some say it’s time for new voices; some say they want to focus on their professional careers; and some say they want to spend more time with their families.

Martin, an NC State University chemistry professor, says he wants to focus on his academic work as he leaves the school board. For the past 11 years, he’s essentially been working two full-time jobs, he says.

“Over this last decade, I have made some remarkable discoveries in my laboratory,” he says. “It’s fundamental science, and I need time to write that work. I have gotten some of it written and published, but I need the time.”

Scott and Kushner each said the health of family members was a big factor in their decision not to run for reelection.

“[My parents’] health has been a struggle; it’s been a concern,” Scott says. “So that’s been in the back of my head, thinking about another four years in office and the impact that would have on my family … and honestly, knowing that the person who serves in this role needs to be very committed and involved. I could not say with certainty I was going to be able to give this district the time and energy it deserves for another four years.”

Kushner says her frustration with the state legislature also contributed to her decision to “pass the baton.” She plans on staying active in politics as an advocate for public education.

“It’s too important [not to],” Kushner says. “The state needs to fund [the statewide Leandro mandate to fully fund public schools] and fulfill its obligations of equity across the state. When I first came on the board, the state portion of our budget was around 70 percent, now it’s 52 percent.

“It’s frustrating to sit on a local board and not have control over [the school] calendar, not be getting the state funding that is constitutionally mandated, not having the flexibility to do what you know is right for the children in the district.”

The (real) issues of today

One of the biggest challenges the school board faces is interference from the state, Martin says. Over the years, the state legislature has weighed in on everything from school calendars to class size to the curriculum. Recently, a state commission proposed a new teacher licensure and compensation model that would base pay on performance, such as test scores or evaluation, instead of on number of years of experience.

Paying teachers based on performance gives resources to schools that are already advantaged and hinders teachers in underresourced schools, Martin says. Not to mention the fact that teacher and staff pay has already endured major cuts and is lagging behind inflation.

“[Teacher pay] has never really been at the level it should be,” Martin says. “We should be having a scenario where my best students want to be teachers, but that’s not what we have. So salary and benefits are a continued challenge.”

Kushner agrees, saying staffing should be a priority for the next school board. Likewise, Scott says new board members should focus on recruiting and retaining strong educators as well as support staff like social workers, psychologists, and school counselors.

“When our teachers have time and feel comfortable building relationships and have the means to engage with their families, our students are the ones who benefit,” Scott says. “But you cannot do that if you don’t have a fully staffed school. You can’t do that when you don’t have support personnel in place.”

Infrastructure is another growing problem, according to Martin. He says the board needs to find more money to renovate and rebuild aging schools, many of which were constructed in the 1990s. Voters will have a chance to weigh in on the issue in November, with a $530.7 million school construction bond on the ballot. If approved, it would help the district build five new schools and renovate seven existing schools.

As new school board members take their seats, Scott wants to remind them to get to know the community they serve. The most important thing, she says, is to have conversations with the people who live in the district and to remember you don’t just serve them; you also serve the entire county.

“[Board members have] got to be involved,” Scott says. “They have to listen, and they have to be confident when they come back to that board table with their colleagues that they’re advocating for the needs of this district.” 

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