Forsyth school board wants to revert to partisan structure

by Keith Barber

By a vote of 7-2, the Winston-Salem/ Forsyth County School Board has adopted a resolution in support of a bill currently wending its way through the NC General Assembly that would return school board elections to partisan contests and move Winston-Salem City Council elections to presidential election years during a special meeting on May 26. The resolution requests the Forsyth County legislative delegation to sponsor and pass legislation that would return school board elections to partisan in nature, as they were prior to the passage of House Bill 833 two years ago.

House Bill 523 essentially reverses House Bill 833, which was championed by Communities Helping All Neighbors Gain Empowerment, or CHANGE, and made Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board elections nonpartisan. Sponsored by reps. Larry Womble and Earline Parmon — both Forsyth Democrats — the bill also created staggered terms for school board members.

Under the current law, the top vote-getter in District 1 serves a four-year term, while the second highest vote getter only serves a two-year term. The top two vote getters in District 2 serve four-year terms while the next two highest vote getters serve two-year terms. In addition, the top vote-getter in the at-large school board race receives a four-year term while the next two highest vote getters serve two-year terms. House Bill 523 restores fouryear terms for all school board members.

The school board passed a resolution two years ago opposing House Bill 833.

At last week’s meeting, Chairman Donny Lambeth said he didn’t believe it was fair for John Davenport Jr., the newest member of the board, to have to deal with the issue.

“This is something we had prior to the last election and I would actually ask that if we could — because he has not been involved in this at all — I would ask that we would give him consideration for not having to vote on this at all because he hasn’t been part of this discussion,” Lambeth said.

Last month, Davenport, a Republican, was selected by the school board to succeed board member Geneva Brown, who stepped down in March due to health concerns.

Board members Victor Johnson and Elisabeth Motsinger disagreed with Lambeth’s proposal.

“[Davenport] is a member of District 1, which would be deprived of another vote if he doesn’t vote,” Johnson said. “He’s a member of this board and he should vote. We need to know exactly where John stands in District 1 on the issues facing District 1.”

Davenport did not respond before board member Buddy Collins interrupted the discussion, making a motion to pass the resolution.

Board members Jane Goins, Jeannie Metcalf, Jill Tackaberry and Marilyn Parker joined Lambeth, Collins and Johnson voting in favor of the resolution, while Motsinger and Davenport opposed the measure.

On May 17, House Bill 523 passed the NC House on its second reading. The bill is currently sitting in the NC Senate State and Local Government Committee.

Rep. Dale Folwell (R-Forsyth), the House speaker pro tem, is the bill’s primary sponsor. Folwell said he asked the school board to pass a resolution in support of the bill after he heard from a number of state lawmakers that they would like to see an official endorsement of the legislation by the board.

House Bill 523 also stipulates that Winston- Salem City Council members will serve out their current terms until 2013, and then serve three-year terms so that elections will coincide with the presidential election in 2016.

Thereafter, city council elections will be held every four years.

Folwell said holding city council elections in even-numbered years will save the city an estimated $180,000. He added that House Bill 523 would not have been necessary if CHANGE had not “tinkered with local elections.”

“I’m just correcting the mess they created,” Folwell said.

In April, CHANGE issued a statement in opposition to House Bill 523.

“Party affiliation tells voters nothing about what a candidate will do to address student achievement, support teachers, increase parental involvement, or decrease bullying,” the statement reads. “Current school board members have said publicly that party politics play no role in their deliberations.”

CHANGE officials also cited the discouraging effect partisan school board elections have on the number of candidates who file for office.

“If the nearly 50,000 unaffiliated voters registered in Forsyth County want to run, they have to gather more than 9,000 signatures simply to get on the ballot — a very discouraging hurdle right out of the gate,” the statement reads. “Therefore, partisan elections significantly limit the number of people who can and will run.”

The statement notes that 88 percent of school boards across the state have nonpartisan school board elections and 10,000 Forsyth County residents signed a petition asking for the same. In addition, in 2010, Forsyth County witnessed a record high number of school board candidates — 26 — run for office.

“Partisan school board elections seem primarily to serve the parties and the political interests of those with partisan political aspirations,” the statement reads. “Those things are not bad; they just should not be mixed up in our children’s education.”

Folwell said he introduced the bill after CHANGE refused to endorse legislation that would have made Winston-Salem City Council elections nonpartisan. In January, Folwell sent a letter to Joines stating that when House Bill 833 was introduced in the NC Senate two years ago, there was mention of a bill to make Winston-Salem City Council elections nonpartisan as well.

“In anticipation of a bill being filed, I wanted to know if there are any other changes that you would desire, such as staggered terms or holding the city council elections on even number years,” the letter states.

Joines said he and the members of city council responded to Folwell’s letter by saying they didn’t understand why anyone would suggest making a change to one of the most diverse and successful city councils in the state.

The original version of the bill would have shaved off one year of the terms of sitting members of the Winston-Salem City Council with elections being held in 2012. That section of the bill was removed from the version that passed the NC House on May 17.