In many North Carolina counties, school boards are nonpartisan. In theory, Wake County is one of them. Since Wake's board members don't run as Republicans and Democrats, it is technically a nonpartisan governing body.
However, we define them by their party—and in many ways, that's how they tacitly define themselves. Now, board members will have to decide whether to explicitly acknowledge their own partisanship.
Based on unofficial election results, Republican school board member Chris Malone won a District 35 seat in the state House. Since Democrats hold a 5–4 majority on the school board, they will choose his replacement. Because of the board's nonpartisan status, Democrats aren't obliged to choose a Republican. When called for comment on his replacement, Malone said he was too busy to speak on the phone, but responded via text message.
He wrote that the Democratic majority should consider "the will of the people in my district. They voted for me because of our shared vision. [The majority should] find someone who also shares the vision of neighborhood schools."
The board will appoint Malone's replacement after his resignation, which will occur before Jan. 9, when the Legislature convenes.
Malone was elected in 2009 with a wave of Republicans who swept four open seats on a platform of ending Wake's diversity policy, which bussed a small percentage of students to achieve socioeconomic balance. Instead, GOP members moved toward a neighborhood schools plan, which would have created high-poverty schools in economically depressed areas of the county.
But neighborhood schools is just one policy position that clearly separates the school board along party lines. Merit pay for teachers, school choice and vouchers are among many other philosophical differences.
Nonetheless, Democratic board member Jim Martin says he won't institute a party litmus test for his pick to fill Malone's seat.
"We need people who know about education and who work hard," Martin said. "I'd like somebody who has experience as a principal or teacher, experience with facilities planning. I'm not looking at political party for my vote."
But some Republicans would view Martin's preference for an educator as partisan. For instance, Republican board member John Tedesco recently ran a campaign for state superintendent of public instruction on the premise that it can be detrimental for experienced educators to govern school systems.
Martin's choice to fill the seat won't be based on finding a policy clone of Malone; that doesn't sit well with the outgoing board member.
"Don't you think it would be an affront to parents to install someone who is opposed to them and their vision for their kids' education?" he wrote in his series of text messages.
Martin has a simple counter. "If Mr. Malone was so concerned with that, he should've finished his time on the school board. That's the reality."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Wake school board's identity crisis."