A partisan democracy

By Sam Hieb

As it stands now, Sen. Trudy Wade’s bill to transform the Guilford County Board of Education elections lingers in the state legislature, awaiting possible changes in the House of Representatives.

Wade’s bill has generated quite a bit of controversy. Opponents  — most notably Greensboro’s daily paper — say it is yet one more example of Raleigh interfering in local issues, especially considering the fact that there has not been a strong call here in Guilford County for changes to schoolboard elections.

By the same token it’s fair to ask whether or not the current nonpartisan elections are serving the public well.

I’ll argue that there’s no elected board that operates as far under the radar as the Guilford County School Board. I’m not suggesting the board keeps secrets from the public. They hold regular public meetings, to which everyone is welcome. If you’re so inclined and have absolutely nothing else to do, you can also watch on the GCS public access network.

It’s just that few people seem to care about school politics, even those with kids in the system. Try a little experiment: Ask a friend who her school board representatives are. Their answer — I’m willing to bet they don’t know — speaks volumes. (For the record, mine are Deena Hayes, who represents my elementary school, and at-large members Nancy Routh and Sandra Alexander.)

Look, sometimes it’s viewed as a good thing when political boards operate in low-key mode. A while back, Guilford County Board of Commissioners meetings had become so contentious that it was a relief when they finally began taking care of the county’s business in an efficient and timely manner.

And it’s not as if school board elections have always been yawners, either. Superintendent Mo Green’s predecessor, Terry Grier, was a magnet for controversy and any board member who supported his policies was politically vulnerable.

The 2004 race is a good example.

Grier’s controversial High Point school-choice plan upset many parents, and opponents focused their efforts on unseating then-board members Kris Cooke and Dot Kearns, who voiced support for Grier’s plan.

It got ugly as the election came down to the wire, with opponents running political ads portraying Cooke and Kearns as robotic “Stepford Wives.”

While both Cooke and Kearns prevailed in that election (neither remains on the board), Cooke told me at the time she’d “never seen anything like it,” describing the campaign as “mean-spirited, personal and full of lies.”

Fast forward to the 2012 election, when only two of six school-board races were contested. And in one of those races — for the District 5 seat — incumbent Paul Daniels, the closest thing to a school-board budget hawk I’ve ever seen, dropped out of the race when he finished a distant second in the primary to challenger Linda Welborn.

A partisan race could help avoid that situation. I don’t pretend know the political affiliations of either Welborn or Daniels, but for the sake of argument I’ll suggest that a partisan primary would have allowed a candidate like Daniels to face a candidate like Wellborn head-on in the general election instead of running from behind at the outset. That would help both candidates better define their respective issues for voters.

Opponents of Wade’s bill might suggest casting a cautionary eye upon the Winston-Salem/ Forsyth County Board of Education, which has flipped from partisan school-board races to non-partisan and back again in two years, all at the hands of legislators in Raleigh.

But I’ll point out that a grassroots group — Communities Helping All Neighbors Gain Empowerment — made the first move when it lobbied for non-partisan races while Republicans were in control of the school board. No coincidence there, I’m sure, although a cynic might point out that in politics things cut both ways.

Admittedly Wade’s bill is more complex than just making school board races partisan, especially her redistricting plan. As we saw with county commissioners, redistricting is a messy process that could confuse and alienate voters.

But in my mind, partisan races alone would have the effect of attracting a broader base of candidates while simultaneously streamlining the issues, which in turn would generate greater interest in school-board races.

Making these races partisan is enough to make liberals gasp, considering the fact that politics is never supposed to enter into education issues, never mind the fact that if you step into a voting booth, it’s politics, period.

But I think it’s fair to ask whether or not the current non-partisan system is effective democracy, especially when you’re talking about such a sensitive issue as “The Children.”