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Macon school board opposes partisan elections

Macon County’s school board has made it clear that it opposes the push from some county commissioners to make its elections partisan. File photo Macon County’s school board has made it clear that it opposes the push from some county commissioners to make its elections partisan. File photo

After county commissioners considered signing a resolution in support of transitioning the Macon County Board of Education to a partisan-elected body, the school board has made clear their vehement opposition to the change. 

“The system we have now is not broken, it’s worked extremely well, and I just don’t understand this sudden need, for various reasons, to change something that has worked so beautifully,” said Chairman Jim Breedlove. “I’ll say this for the record, this board works together, we’re here for one common interest.”

At its Nov. 27 meeting, the Board of Education considered the proposal from the county commission for a partisan-elected school board and, with all five members opposed to the idea, directed Board Attorney John Henning to draft a resolution in support of maintaining a non-partisan board.

“I would like you all to consider us putting together a resolution showing our support for the retention of our current method, in terms of our selection of our board of education,” said Breedlove. “We would then send that into the commissioners so they understand where we’re at and how we feel.”

According to Henning, there has been a push in the last several years to have more school boards elected on a partisan basis.

“In the past, there was a kind of a community discussion, ‘let’s ask our school board what they think about it, let’s ask the community, have some public hearings on it,’ not so much during this calendar year, during this General Assembly,” said Henning. “Several of our clients suddenly found themselves the subject of a local act being pushed through the General Assembly without their knowledge. This has happened.” 

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Macon County alone does not have the power to change the format of the election for school board. The change would have to be made through the General Assembly. The resolution county commissioners are considering requests the legislature establish that “henceforth the party affiliation of candidates for the Macon County Board of Education be identified on any/all primary and general election ballots.” 

Rep. Mark Pless (R-Haywood) recently succeeded in passing a bill to make municipal elections partisan in Madison County. Pless had tried to incorporate Haywood County in that bill, including its school board, but ultimately Haywood was removed from the bill.

The school board is currently elected as non-partisan, meaning candidates do not run for office on any party affiliation but simply as a candidate for school board and resident of Macon County.

The resolution commissioners are looking at cites three reasons for supporting the switch to a partisan-elected board. First, that “the Macon County Board of Commissioners believes that identification of candidates’ party and/or ideological affiliation will provide voters with more information on the policies and positions such candidates support.” 

Second, that “approximately one half of the other school districts in North Carolina currently identify their Board of Education candidates by party affiliation.” 

Last, that “election clarity and transparency are of utmost importance to insure [sic] voters a basis for their decisions.”

Henning pointed out that in 2015, out of 115 school districts, 17 of them had boards elected on a partisan basis. Now, that number has grown to more than 50.

“There’s been a dramatic increase in just this past year,” said Henning.

The Macon County School Board has been elected on a non-partisan basis since at least 1968.

“One thing that boards often say in response to [the push toward partisan elections] is that our primary responsibilities are setting school policy, hiring teachers and administrators, and neither one of these should be influenced by party affiliation,” said Henning. “Our primary allegiance is to students and parents, not to leaders or platforms of specific political parties.”

“Injecting party politics into local school board elections shifts the focus away from candidates who are committed to school issues, education in Macon County, and detracts from the civil discourse and cooperative spirit the board has,” Henning said.

Henning recommended the board take up a resolution in opposition to any attempts by the General Assembly to make the Board of Education partisan. He will draft the resolution for the board to consider at its Dec. 11 meeting. This will allow the resolution to be signed by the board prior to the Dec. 12 meeting of the Macon County Commission.

At its November meeting, the Macon County commissioners considered the resolution in support of making the school board partisan, but ultimately decided to table the document for a future meeting. Commissioner Gary Shields, former Macon County Schools administrator and member of the Board of Education, voiced his opposition to the change. Commissioner Josh Young called for input from both the public and the board.

Commissioners John Shearl, Danny Antoine and Paul Higdon all voiced their support for the resolution and the change to a partisan-elected board, but Antoine sided with the opportunity for public input, thus giving a majority to the commissioners in favor of larger public discussion prior to approval.

School board member Diedre Breeden was at that November commission meeting when the resolution was considered. She noted that tensions were high during the discussion about whether or not to support a resolution to make the school board partisan, but that the atmosphere in the room was completely different when MCS administrator Colleen Strickland spoke about the Career and Technical Education program in the school system.

“That is the heart of what Macon County Schools is,” said Breeden. “Those kids are doing awesome things; those teachers are doing awesome things. Everyone in the community of Macon County is a part of Macon County Schools and that’s how it should be. We’re just a part of Macon County Schools, we’re all contributing to it, and I just hope that this resolution puts forward that that is what our focus needs to be.” 

All other board members made clear they agreed that bringing political parties into school board elections would detract from the board’s goals. Vice Chair Melissa Evans said she was concerned that if the race for school board were partisan, people would vote for a political party rather than the candidate’s moral values.

“I think that is detrimental in any election, especially when you’re dealing with your children. You need to know what kind of character and the values that individual believes in,” said Evans. “It’s public knowledge, what affiliation we have. If anybody’s concerned about that, it’s not an issue to look that up.” 

During the commissioner’s discussion on the issue, Shearl claimed that the proposal was the result of an election issue in which people were confused about how to vote because of the lack of party delineation on the ballot. Chairman Higdon said that he had a problem with school board candidates running for political office and expecting people to vote for them, while being “ashamed” of putting their political affiliation on the ballot.

“I’m not ashamed of my affiliation; I don’t care. Whoever wants to know, they can look. But I totally think our children deserve better than that, I really do,” said Evans. “Nobody here ran as a Democrat or a Republican or an independent. They ran because they love the kids, they had an interest in the schools, and I think you are stripping us of that when you start bringing politics into it and affiliation into it.’”

Board member Hillary Wilkes said she had sent a letter to commissioners opposing the change, which she requested to have read aloud either during public comment, or during the discussion on the resolution. Her letter was never read during the meeting and Wilkes decried the lack of opportunity for input from the board of education prior to commissioners considering a resolution that directly affects the board of education.

“Personally, I was very offended by the way it played out, without being consulted or included in a conversation that directly affects what we’re trying to do for our school children,” said Wilkes. “I did not see how it served our community of schools and faculty and parents; I was pretty angry about being excluded from a conversation that is so important.”

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