Debate never ends in Orange County, and the current focus is the inequity of funding between the county's two school districts. Though the prospect of merging the two systems--floated by county commissioner Moses Carey last year--is not likely soon, how to close the gap fairly remains a hot topic. But there are many issues at stake besides the merger, including managing growth and its impact on the environment, shifting mental health services in light of state reform plans, and improving the local economy.
This summer's election will determine the makeup of the Orange County school board, and will effectively determine the state legislative seats and the Board of County Commissioners' race, too, since Orange County voters have not elected a Republican or Libertarian to those posts in recent history.
Board of Commissioners
Much of the anti-merger wrath has been aimed at incumbents Moses Carey and Margaret Brown, but we would like to remind readers of their long, consistent records on issues like setting strict terms for growth, preserving watersheds and farmland, funding education, taking the lead in affordable housing and green construction projects, and using bond funds responsibly. Orange County can't afford to lose these two experienced commissioners--especially in a year that could see fellow commissioner Barry Jacobs move to the N.C. House.
Carey has served on the board for two decades. He's defended the county's natural resources and was involved in the creation of the urban services boundary. He is a longstanding civil rights advocate and based his support for merger on his view that the funding disparity between the two school districts especially hurts minority students. While others may not characterize the issue that way, we don't question the sincerity of Carey's convictions, and we appreciate his decision to stand firm in a politically unpopular position.
Brown has also taken heat for the commissioners' merger exploration. But voters immersed in the merger issue may not remember that since Brown's election to the board in 1996, the county has built more schools, parks, greenways and trails than in several decades prior. Environmental protections and recreation projects have blossomed under her leadership. The affordable housing bond and the county's living wage policy are direct results of her leadership. She initiated the Lands Legacy program to preserve rural farmland, and helped move the greenbelt--1,000 contiguous acres stretching across the county--from concept to near completion. Her critics have blamed her for the slow approval of bond-funded capital projects, but it takes time to do things right, and it's the commissioners' duty to plan for the long haul and implement projects carefully.
Brown and Carey have a record of taking the whole county into consideration rather than focusing on just the needs of southern Orange County and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system. There is a natural tension between the commissioners and both school boards, a system of checks and balances that serves the county as a whole. Keeping this balance is one of the reasons we're not endorsing the challengers in this race.
Valerie Foushee has been on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board since 1997, where she has been a strong leader, keeping the district focused on reducing the achievement gap. A lifelong resident of Carrboro and 17-year employee of its police department, Foushee knows the concerns of working people, particularly when it comes to housing costs, but has not demonstrated much interest in county-wide issues prior to this campaign. We encourage her to keep up her important work on the school board and to get involved in affordable housing issues throughout Orange. She could become a powerful advocate for the county's underserved communities.
You could call Pam Hemminger a power soccer mom: She's been involved in the Rainbow soccer league for 10 years and has chaired Chapel Hill's parks and recreation commission, greenways commission and Southern Community Park design committee. Her environmental credentials rival Margaret Brown's (both received the Sierra Club's endorsement). She says she's running in part to protest what she perceives to be a lack of openness among commissioners to public input--particularly by Brown--on the merger issue. But, again, Hemminger's knowledge of the county as a whole will need to broaden before we can recommend her for the board. We encourage her to stay active in politics and to reach out to the northern part of the county.
Jack Lamb is a retired beer and wine wholesaler and is respected in the business community. He emphasizes fiscal responsibility and bringing in environmentally "clean" businesses to boost the county's economy. But he lacks experience in public service.
Orange County Board of Education
This hasn't been a good year for the Orange County school board. Not only has the merger debate gotten nasty, individual board members and candidates have acted in ways that make us cringe: plagiarizing, lying, pulling up campaign signs, throwing curses in public. Yuck.
Possibly the worst incident was the board's lack of action when then-member member Betty Tom Davidson (a past Indy endorsee) came before them pleading for protection for her son, whom she said was being constantly bullied to the point of extreme mental distress. His school's principal refused to transfer him to another school. Rather than enforce its bullying policy, the board did nothing. Davidson resigned, leaving a two-year unexpired seat, and pulled her son out of Orange County schools. This sad episode underscores a point we hope the board will take to heart: It's not about politics, it's about the children.
For that vacant seat, we support the re-election of Delores Simpson. The 72-year-old Simpson has been on the board for 12 years and is running to fill the two-year vacancy rather than seek another four-year term. She played an unfortunate role in the botched superintendent search last year by making an after-hours phone call to the leading candidate, encouraging him to pull out of the running (which he did). But Simpson offered a contrite apology for the action on our candidate questionnaire: "This was certainly a mistake that taught me an unforgettable lesson." Usually Simpson has a soothing effect on board members and offers a voice of reason during heated discussions. She has worked hard on closing the achievement gap. Her experience continues to be an asset to the board.
Her challenger for the two-year term, Andrea Biddle, is an elementary school parent and PTSA board member who works in public health research at UNC. We like her ideas, but see no reason to unseat a veteran like Simpson. We hope Biddle will stay involved.
Three full terms on the board's seven seats are up for grabs this year. We're supporting three challengers.
Software company vice president James Henninger says figuring out a plan for "adequate funding" is his top priority. He rightly observes that the current rate of growth, the current tax model and unfunded mandates (thanks, President Bush!) will leave the county "eating our seed corn." Henninger says both school boards should sit down with county commissioners and state legislators, if necessary, to figure out a long-term solution. He wants to hire seven more social workers to help address the dropout rate, the achievement gap, bullying and health issues for kids. He also wants Spanish classes in elementary schools, an expansion of alternative school programs and a GED program partnership with Durham Tech's proposed Orange County campus. Henninger criticizes incumbent Keith Cook for reducing opportunity for public discussion. We hope Henninger will be a conciliatory presence on the board.
Hillsborough attorney Dennis Whitling is married to an Orange County schools middle school teacher and has two children in the district. He emphasizes the need for more respectful public discussion. His list of goals covers the same topics as Hennigers'. We hope Whitling's experience as board member, treasurer and baseball coach for the Hillsborough Youth Athletic Association will translate to the school board, particularly when it comes to financial planning and funding allocation.
Liz Brown's passionate arguments on behalf of the group Fair Funding in County Schools have made her a provocative and controversial figure, a target of the anti-merger crowd in both school districts. (She and current board member Dana Thompson led a poorly conceived and short-lived boycott of southern Orange businesses to protest funding disparities between the school systems.) Brown was recently acquitted by a judge for pulling up campaign signs for conservative Hillsborough town board candidate Paul Newton. She is highly critical of the county commissioners, and her statements sometimes verge on personal attacks. With all that in mind, we believe her years of volunteer work and PTSA involvement demonstrate that she truly cares about Orange County schools. In order to transition from activist to board member, Brown will need to channel her passion into patience and work hard to build amicable relationships with fellow board members and parents. She'll need to be sensitive to the genuine concerns of those in the county who feel squeezed by property taxes. In essence, we hope she'll spend the first part of her term listening.
We regret that we cannot endorse longtime board member Keith Cook, who has worked hard to close the achievement gap and reduce the alarming drop-out and suspension rate. That Cook foolishly cribbed a graduation speech from a Web site, we could forgive, if he hadn't also lied about it when asked point-blank by a reporter. His subsequent apologies have been defensive and unconvincing, backing up some parents' claims that he is impervious to criticism. Cook was right to resign as board chair. We salute his 10 years of service, but we cannot recommend that he continue on the board.
Al Hartkopf is an activist with Citizens for a Sound Economy and a leader of the anti-tax bloc in Hillsborough. His intractable anti-tax stance would bring a polemical edge to discussions of funding issues.
N.C. House District 50
This newly drawn district covers Caswell and rural Orange counties. Four Democrats are running in the primary.
Barry Jacobs is the clear choice. He has served on the Board of County Commissioners in Orange County since 1998, and has been on the Orange Water and Sewer Authority board, state commissions on smart growth, growth management and development, the Triangle Area Rural Planning Commission and the county's affordable housing task force. His record demonstrates steadfast advocacy for the rural population he would serve--people who need jobs, housing, better educational opportunities and better services for children and seniors. Jacobs' balanced approach to growth has even earned crossover support from some Republicans, but he's shown that environmental protections don't have to be sacrificed. Independent readers will also recognize Jacobs as our longtime sports writer, and in the interest of full disclosure, we intend to keep him on as a freelance writer. In fact, don't be surprised if Jacobs' encyclopedic knowledge of basketball helps him fit in quickly among Raleigh legislators.
Bill Faison lives on a farm in Orange County near the town of Cedar Grove. He grew up on a tobacco farm, and says education was his ticket to a better life; thus, he emphasizes the need for increased teacher pay and school improvements. Faison has served on the legislative study commission for the state's Court Commission. His medical malpractice firm in Durham employs 60 people, which he says gives him a unique understanding of what it takes to create jobs and maintain fair hiring practices. Faison has a good reputation among local progressives, but his experience simply can't match Jacobs'.
Joel Knight is a 25-year-old Orange County resident who just finished law school and hasn't had time to take the Bar exam yet. He says he'll take on municipal power providers and advocate for pay raises for teachers, tax breaks for disabled veterans, and same-sex partner benefits for state employees. But Knight says he'll never raise taxes on cigarettes, alcohol, corporations or cars.
We don't know much about Duke Underwood, a candidate from Mebane, except that he ran for U.S. Senate in 2002. Underwood didn't fill out our questionnaire or offer a phone number in his filing.
Chatham County Commissioners Districts 1 and 2
When it comes to the county board that's in charge of land-use planning, water and sewer infrastructure, environmental protection and social services for the future, what Chatham needs most is a good old-fashioned dose of government by the people, for the people, and most of all, of the people.
Two of the five seats on the Board of County Commissioners are up for grabs in this primary; neither incumbent is seeking re-election. The Independent recommends candidates who have real grassroots experience and a pro-citizen approach: general contractor and Chatham United founder Patrick Barnes in District 1, and retired Navy officer and Southeast Chatham Advisory Council co-founder Mike Cross in District 2. Though for both this is a first run for elected office, both men have extensive resumes that demonstrate their commitment to speaking for the folks who will have to actually live with the results of the decisions the board of commissioners make over the next four-year term--decisions like whether Chatham should host a regional landfill; whether, when and how public water districts should be established and funded; how many and where mega-developments like the impending 2,500-home Briar Chapel should be built; what it will take to protect the critical Jordan Lake watershed--and many, many others.
Barnes, a lifelong Chatham resident who lives in the northeastern section of the county just west of the Wake County line, got his start organizing some 500 neighbors opposed to Cary's planning efforts in Chatham. He has since shown himself to be an intelligent leader who does his homework, comprehends the big picture of Chatham's current growth trends, and has channeled his frustration with the status quo into real action on behalf of citizens.
Cross, a sixth-generation Chathamite who lives in the southeastern corner of the county that bears more than its share of industrial polluters, came into the public process four years ago, courtesy of a proposed dump. Faced with the futility of ad-hoc organizing around solo issues, Cross co-founded the SCAC, a nonpartisan citizen group that has since accomplished feats large and small, from staving off the dump in their already overtaxed neighborhood and working hand-in-hand with local employers to protect the environment to hosting teacher appreciation lunches for their neighborhood elementary school. Cross brings a thoughtful, calm and analytical approach to the problems Chatham faces, which has rightfully earned him the backing of supporters from many walks of life.
In the Democratic primary, Barnes faces former commissioner Uva Holland, whose re-entrance into the political arena is something of a mystery. Holland lost her District 1 seat to challenger Bob Atwater in the 2000 primary and then supported Atwater's opponent, then-Republican Bunkey Morgan, in his general election battle that fall. Morgan was unsuccessful in District 1 as a Republican that year but won as a District 4 Democrat in one of Chatham's bitterest political battles two years later. (After four years on the Chatham board, Atwater is now running for the N.C. Senate seat vacated earlier this year by Durham's Wib Gulley. See our Senate District 18 endorsement for more info.)
Newcomer and former county public works director Ron Singleton is also running as a Democrat in District 1.
Cross is also in a three-way race in his primary. The Rev. Barry Gray has distinguished himself on the campaign trail by often being the only candidate to focus on the needs of lower-income and minority residents. But Gray lacks appropriate political experience. Former Pittsboro town board member and mayor Mary Wallace is running a well-organized, well-funded campaign with many of the same supporters who put Morgan in office two years ago. Given the majority already in place--three commissioners who turn a sympathetic and uncritical eye on any and all development proposals--the county's citizens desperately need two new commissioners who may lose on 3-2 counts but can at least put their constituents' needs on the table for discussion along with profiteers' plans.
District 2 also features a rare Republican primary in the Chatham commissioners' race. Andy Wilkie is making his third bid for the seat, after losing narrowly to Margaret Pollard in 2000. Wilkie, a Goldston resident, an owner of convenience stores, thrift shops and rental property, is a founding member of the conservative watchdog group Financial Accountability for Chatham Taxpayers. He has campaigned on a platform to cut waste in the county budget, including floating a proposal to whack 10 percent of each department's funding. Newcomer Mike Tysor has not demonstrated a grasp of the issues, has not attended any commissioners' meetings nor looked at the county budget, and said at one forum that he was running because the board of commissioners needs diversity, and he offers a conservative point of view. The Independent makes no endorsement in the District 2 Republican primary.
Board of Education
Two of the five seats on the Chatham school board will be decided in the July 20 election, which is a nonpartisan race without a primary. During the next term, the school district faces some enormous changes, particularly the retirement of Superintendent Larry Mabe. Mabe has been a controversial figure during his tenure, to the point that county commissioners even got involved in closed-door meetings about his performance a couple years back. Choosing his successor presents an opportunity to move the schools in a positive, new direction. In addition to selecting a new chief, the school board needs to move quickly to begin to address the need for new classroom space to accommodate the housing developments whose blueprints are already on the table down at the planning department in Pittsboro.
To guide the Chatham schools in the face of all this change, it makes sense to have some energetic, new blood on the school board. In their races against an incumbent and a former board member who left the board two decades ago, The Independent endorses newcomers Norman Clark in District 1 and Holly Duncan in District 2. Both have great ideas about involving parents and community members in the schools, providing financial accountability to taxpayers, and attracting and retaining quality teachers--a significant concern in a district that saw a 16 percent turnover rate last year.
In District 1, incumbent and board vice chairman Cadle Cooper is retiring. Clark is a Pittsboro native and graduate of Northwood High School and N.C. State University. Currently employed as a Chapel Hill fire department captain, Clark has two children in the Chatham schools and has been an involved parent and volunteer, both in the school system and as a coach in recreational leagues. Clark faces former member R. Warren Strowd, a dairy farmer who served on the board from 1971 to 1984.
In District 2, Duncan faces incumbent Ernest Dark Jr., who has served 16 years. Duncan is a 1995 N.C. State grad who has taught special education in the Chatham and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school systems. Her youth and enthusiasm, as well as her professional experience in the classroom and her willingness to challenge the old ways of doing business, will serve the Chatham schools well.
Orange County voting guide
On July 20, Orange County voters will select candidates for county commissioner, school board members in a nonpartisan race, and state House and Senate seats. For information on where to vote, call the Orange County Board of Elections, 245-2350, or visit www.co.orange.nc.us/elect. Below are the Independent's endorsements in the contested races. Not listed are candidates without opposition in the primary.
School Board (four seats): Delores Simpson (2-year unexpired term), James Henninger, Dennis Whitling, Liz Brown
County Commissioner (two seats): Moses Carey, D; Margaret Brown, D
Chatham County voting guide
On July 20, Chatham County voters will select candidates for county commissioner, school board members in a nonpartisan race, and state House and Senate seats. For information on where to vote, call the Chatham County Board of Elections, (919) 542-8206, or visit www.co.chatham.nc.us/dept/elections/Web/electionhome.htm. Below are the Independent's endorsements in the contested races. Not listed are candidates without opposition in the primary.
County Commissioner (2 seats):
District 1: Patrick Barnes, D; No endorsement, R
District 2: Mike Cross, D; No endorsement, R
Board of Education (2 seats):
District 1: Norman Clark
District 2: Holly Duncan
N.C. House 50: Barry Jacobs, D
N.C. Senate 18: Bob Atwater, D