It's a fine line that the Democratic candidates for Wake school board are treading.
They maintain that partisan politics has no place in the schools. Pitted, however, against a Republican Party that seized control of the school board two years ago with an aggressive and overtly partisan campaign, and promptly dumped the school system's longstanding diversity policy as the first step in returning to "neighborhood schools"—Democrats have little choice but to respond in kind. So they've turned to their party for help, even as they pledge to be open-minded and independent if elected.
DISTRICT 6, CENTRAL RALEIGH
The Democrats' efforts to balance partisan politics and their prospective duties on the officially nonpartisan school board were tested last week when the six candidates spoke at a meeting of the Democratic Women of Wake County in Raleigh. Five of the six went after the Republican majority on the school board as reckless, shortsighted and ideological. But where one of them was quite partisan and sharp-tongued, the other four took pains to be more moderate and to appeal, in different ways, for compromise and consensus solutions. The sixth candidate, oddly, didn't mention the Republicans at all.
The contrasting styles were evident among the three Democrats running for the seat in District 6, represented by retiring Democrat Carolyn Morrison. Judging from past election results, District 6 will likely elect one of these three Democrats to replace her:
George Morgan, a retired schoolteacher and assistant principal, was folksy and talked about himself, not the GOP.
Christine Kushner is a policy analyst and self-described "constructive critic" of the GOP board. She also has been among the parents in the Great Schools in Wake Coalition who have been a fixture at school board meetings since the Republicans took charge. Kushner promised to focus on curriculum issues and closing the achievement gap between middle-class and low-income students. Before the '09 elections, Kushner was a PTA member and volunteer tutor, she said softly. "Come December 2009, I got very concerned about resegregation and the direction this new board was taking our school system." On Tuesday, Wake Democratic Chair Mack Paul announced that the party is backing Kushner.
There was nothing soft about Mary Ann Weathers. A retired teacher, assistant superintendent in Moore County and educational consultant with a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from UNC-Chapel Hill, Weathers tore into the Republican majority. She has worked with good school boards and bad ones throughout the United States, she said. "Right now, we win the prize for having the worst school board."
Weathers was late entering the race—she filed on Aug. 12, the final filing day and months after Kushner started campaigning—and she made a distinctly partisan appeal. "The school board is broken, and we let it happen," she told the Democratic group. "We didn't do it, but we let it happen." Her family goes back 250 years in Wake County, Weathers said. "I come from a long line of strong Democratic women and good-looking men." Yes, she added, she did call Republican school board chair Ron Margiotta a carpetbagger. "And that's the least of what I called him," she added as the audience roared.
The fourth candidate in the District 6 race is Republican Donna Williams, who co-founded the Northern Wake Republican Club and helped build it into a potent political organization in time for the '09 school board elections. She's backed by Margiotta and says, if elected, she'll support the GOP majority's policies. Among her campaign contributors: Art Pope, the Wake County Republican kingmaker; Pope's wife, Katherine; and Bob Luddy, the millionaire businessman and charter schools founder. All gave her $4,000, according to campaign finance reports.
Because of the state's outdated laws on reporting campaign contributions, it's unclear how much money has been raised in this race. But when Kushner filed her midyear campaign report in July, she had brought in some $27,000. In contrast, Williams, who entered the race later and filed the same report in mid-August, reported raising $22,000 to date.
The Wake Democrats are paying for campaign organizers in the school board race as well as in the Raleigh and Cary municipal elections. The Republicans say they're depending on campaign volunteers, but expect their campaigns to be similarly well funded.
With three Democrats and a single Republican running in District 6, it's possible that no candidate will receive a majority of the votes on Oct. 11. If that happens, the top two—probably Kushner and Williams—would advance to a runoff election on Nov. 8.
A Williams victory, outright or in a runoff, would be a huge upset in a district that is—along with District 4—one of the top two Democratic strongholds among the nine Wake school districts.
Still, a question for Democratic voters, and for unaffiliated voters who dislike the Republican school board's approach, is whether Kushner's calm, logical approach makes her the strongest opponent for Williams. Or will it require more of a take-no-prisoners approach, like Weathers', to hold the seat?
That is, of course, aside from the question of which candidate would be the best school board member.
DISTRICT 3, NORTH RALEIGH
In the other four district races, a single Democratic candidate faces off against a single Republican, so there will be no runoffs and no question of which Democrat or Republican is the best campaigner.
Regardless, the Democratic candidates face the same critical question of style: Can a Democrat win with a message of nonpartisanship, the complexity of the issues and "good governance"? Or is the case that in a low-turnout election like a school board race, you can't beat a hard-hitting Republican who turns out the GOP's base vote unless you're a hard-hitting Democrat who turns out the Democratic base vote?
"Good governance" was a term used at the Democratic Women's forum by school board member Kevin Hill, who is seeking election in District 3 against Republican Heather Losurdo, Williams' successor as president of the Northern Wake Republican Club.
Hill, a former teacher and principal in Wake County who is now on the N.C. State University faculty, is a low-key proponent of "thoughtful, unbiased decision-making." He says that "joining a voting bloc or slate, as opposed to exercising independence, is not good governance." Hill's list of the things the school board majority's done wrong, or illegally, is lengthy.
It's also understated, which is the opposite of Losurdo's direct, conservative approach.
District 3 is considered a swing district, one the Republicans have in their sights as they attempt to expand their current 5-4 board majority to at least 6-3. A sixth seat would "Goldman proof" their bloc in the event that Debra Goldman becomes a free agent. She was elected on the Republican slate two years ago, but the GOP school board members recently ousted her as vice chair for occasionally voting with the Democrats.
DISTRICT 8, SOUTHWEST WAKE COUNTY
If there's another swing district, the Democrats hope it's District 8, where Ron Margiotta is the one member of the Republican majority up for re-election. He's running against Democrat Susan Evans, an accountant-business owner also active with the Great Schools in Wake Coalition.
The Republicans controlled redistricting following the 2010 census, and they redrew District 8 to bolster its Republican voting edge in anticipation of Margiotta's candidacy.
Still, Evans came across last week as the Democrat best able to combine a strong indictment of the Margiotta-led Republicans with an appeal for compromise. In Western Wake, she said, the Republicans have "told a lot of mistruths" about how the diversity policy has caused continual student reassignments, when the real cause was growth—and lagging school construction—in Apex, Holly Springs and Fuquay-Varina.
"I recognize that there are real issues facing our school system," Evans said. "Better planning involves working to confront the challenges of our continued expected growth, and I'm ready to buckle down to do that planning. The issues surrounding how to assign students in our county are very complex, but I believe it's possible to compromise on solutions that do not polarize our entire community." She added, "My pledge is to put students first and politics last."
Evans' talk of compromise puts her on the same page as Superintendent Tony Tata. His Blue Option for a new student assignment policy is a parental-choice plan, but seeks to retain student diversity by keeping the inner-city magnet schools and preventing any school to be filled with low-achieving students. The old policy precluded too many low-income students.
In contrast, Margiotta has clashed with Tata over the details of the Blue Option, notwithstanding that it was Margiotta's majority that hired Tata and brought him to Wake County eight months ago. Margiotta wants a pure "neighborhood schools" plan—with diversity scrapped.
With Tata's plan coming before the school board in September, probably the biggest question in the 2011 campaign is whether Evans and the Democrats, including Mack Paul, can draw a sharp line between Tata's centrist approach and Margiotta's Republican position. And an interesting debate could be Margiotta versus Tata over who's in charge of student assignments, anyway.