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Macon tables partisan school board discussion

Commissioner John Shearl voiced support for a partisan-elected school board. Commissioner John Shearl voiced support for a partisan-elected school board. Bob Scott photo

After contentious debate over the decision to make the Macon County Board of Education partisan-elected, county commissioners tabled the issue to get input from school board members and the public. 

“You’re getting hung up on a political issue that has to do with labeling other elected bodies. That’s national politics you’re driving into this community to divide us,” Commissioner Josh Young said of Commissioner John Shearl, who’d introduced the resolution supporting the identification of party affiliation for candidates for Board of Education at the Nov. 14 commissioners meeting.

The board is 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 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.”

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However, Macon County alone does not have the power to change the format of that election. The change would have to be made through the General Assembly. The resolution 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.” 

The document requests that the change not affect the terms of current school board members and go into effect in the next election cycle for school board in 2025.

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.

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Opponents cite heightened partisanship and division, as well as lack of input from the school board regarding the resolution as the main reasons to keep the school board elected non-partisan.

“Candidates for the school board should be elected based on their knowledge of the schools, their commitment to the students, their creativity that they have in addressing problems that the schools face and creating the best possible educational environment for the students,” said Macon resident Rebecca Sexton during public comment at the Nov. 14 meeting. “This is what the candidates should be running on. Not what their political party affiliation is.”

Shearl claims his request is 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.

“I had some emails come in and said that the school system should not be considered a political arena. I’m sorry, but everything that we encounter every day is driven by politics,” said Shearl. “This is not to change the face of the board or anything like that, I just simply think the school board candidates should be partisan and they should be primaried.” 

“In my situation, I would say the opposite,” said Commissioner Gary Shields, previous school board member and Macon County Schools administrator. “Having been a board of education member for four years, party politics was not an issue because we didn’t allow it to get to that. Politics is nasty. I think the Board of Education is different. They’re elected and they’re on the Board and they have a different responsibility because it’s education. When you put politics in there it gets to be a little muddy.”

Shields added that he opposed the resolution in part because of the lack of opportunity to discuss the change with current school board members and garner their input.

Both commissioners Paul Higdon and Danny Antoine sided with Shearl in supporting the resolution. However, Antoine seconded Shields’ view that the commission should table it until the school board could provide input.

Young said he had not seen this document prior to its inclusion on the agenda for last week’s meeting and decried the lack of opportunity for public input, as well as for input from the school board.

“Where’s the public discussion? Where’s the public hearings? Where’s all the public involvement? We’re ruling with an iron fist right here. We talk about government overreach; well it happens on both sides. John [Shearl] talks about the will of the people, let’s put it out for the will of the people,” said Young. “Who am I to make another board label themselves? Put it on a referendum.”

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