RALEIGH — With elections 2 1/2 months away, groups hoping to wrest control from the Republican majority on the Wake County school board have raised more than $85,000 - an early sign of a highly competitive campaign season.
Critics of the GOP school board majority appear to have a sizable fundraising lead on the basis of campaign finance reports.
The biggest donors by Friday were pharmaceutical executives John and Ann Campbell of Raleigh, who have given $40,000 to school board candidates and a PAC dedicated to overturning control from the Republican-backed slate in power since 2009.
Accusations are coming from both political parties that the other side is trying to bring undue influence to what are officially nonpartisan races. In the 2009 campaign, candidates had collected about $20,000 at a similar point.
"My big concern is that poor Art Pope has just been beaten up," said Wake County GOP Chairwoman Susan Bryant, referring to former state Rep. Art Pope, a longtime GOP donor who gave $15,015 to the county Republican Party for the 2009 campaign. "You can't, or you shouldn't, buy an election. It appears that Mr. and Mrs. Campbell are busy doing that."
Efforts to reach the Campbells, top executives of Raleigh management consultant Campbell Alliance, were unsuccessful.
But Mack Paul, chairman of the county Democratic Party, responded by charging that special interest money flooded Wake two years ago to bring the current school board leadership to power.
"The donors to the candidates are business and civic leaders who are concerned about the future of Wake County" Paul said. "Some are parents of children in our school system; others are simply citizens who are concerned about the actions of the current school board majority."
Student assignment, long contentious in the state's largest school district, will likely again be a major factor when voters go to the polls Oct. 11.
Changes and protests
The Republican majority has adopted a number of changes. The most contentious has been the decision to end the practice of assigning students to promote socio economic diversity in schools. The decision sparked protests, arrests, a federal civil rights investigation and a challenge to the certification of the systems' high schools.
Republicans hold a 5-4 majority that has been tested by the defection of GOP board member Debra Goldman on some votes. Republican board members including board Chairman Ron Margiotta have talked about picking up at least one more seat this fall to ensure a majority no matter how Goldman votes.
Margiotta is the only Republican facing re-election this year. The other four seats on the ballot are held by Democrats, two of whom decided not run this year. Democrats would need to win all five seats to gain the majority.
To accomplish the mission, the Wake County Democratic Party recently announced plans to hire a staff to raise money and coordinate a campaign to regain the school board majority.
"We don't need to have paid staff," said Bryant, the GOP chief in Wake. "We have commitment and passion."
Ahead in fundraising
Although 2011 fundraising figures from the political parties haven't been released yet, reports for the individual school board candidates and political actions committees show Democrats have been actively raising money.
School board candidate Christine Kushner, a critic of the board majority, has already reported raising $27,271 in her bid to win the District 6 seat in Raleigh. That's more than some candidates raised in all of 2009.
"It speaks to people's confidence in my leadership and my message about having a strong school system where we're meeting the needs of all students," Kushner said.
A number of figures who've been outspoken in their opposition to the elimination of Wake's so-called diversity policy have contributed money. Donors include former Superintendent Del Burns, who resigned because of his disagreements with the board majority; and Duke University professor Tim Tyson, a civil rights leader who was arrested after he and others took over board members' seats at a meeting.
But the largest donors have been Ann and John Campbell, whose children have attended Wake's magnet school program. Magnet parents have been among the most vocal critics of the change in student assignment. In addition to the $40,000 they've contributed, the Campbells are sponsors of a planned Wake County Democratic Party fundraiser.
"We simply must put a stop to narrow-minded, ideological, divisive partisanship on our school board," Ann Campbell wrote in a March opinion article. "Business leaders and the vast moderate political center in Wake County must stand up in favor of maintaining socioeconomic balance in school assignments."
Margiotta, who is running for the District 8 seat in southwestern Wake, downplayed the contributions.
"It's a few people providing most of the money to their campaigns," he said. "How can they represent the will of the community?"
PAC gets bucks
Another beneficiary of the giving has been the Wake Citizens for Good Government PAC, which reported raising $27,803 so far. The political action committee was formed in 2009 by Democratic pollster Dean Debnam and ran a last-minute television attack ad against Republican candidates.
Efforts to reach Debnam were unsuccessful.
In contrast, the Wake Schools Community Alliance reported having only $1 on hand as of its latest report. The parent group had reported raising more than $50,000 in 2009 when it backed the four Republican school board candidates.
Joe Ciulla, a leader of the Wake Schools Community Alliance, said the group won't approach 2009's fundraising totals. But he said it won't matter as much this time.
"The majority of residents are pleased with the direction of the school system and aren't going to be passionate about making a change," he said.
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