In a little more than a month, Wake County voters will decide whether they approve of how the state's largest school system changed the way it determines which students attend which schools.
School board candidates and political groups are preparing campaigns that could dwarf 2009's hard-fought races in terms of dollars spent and public interest generated. The next phase begins this week with the first of five candidate forums and the next round of state-mandated campaign finance reports.
As has been the case since the Republican majority took control after the 2009 elections, the issue of student assignment is likely a major election issue.
The board majority voted last year to eliminate busing students to balance schools by family income levels.
School administrators are working on a new assignment plan that would promote having families go to schools near where they live.
"If the majority on the school board changes, then the direction of the school system would change," said Donna Williams, a school board candidate who supports the board majority. "This is a very important election."
Five of the nine school board seats are on the Oct. 11 ballot.
Republicans are hoping to build on their sometimes shaky 5-4 majority. Democrats, who hold four of the seats on the ballot, want to regain the majority.
The school board elections are officially nonpartisan, but both major political parties have endorsed candidates and will again be actively involved in the campaigns.
Last week, the Wake County Democratic Party announced it was endorsing incumbent Kevin Hill for the District 3 seat, incumbent Keith Sutton in District 4, Jim Martin in District 5, Christine Kushner in District 6 and Susan Evans in District 8.
The Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators, which represents 4,200 Wake school employees, endorsed the same candidates last week. None of the school board candidates endorsed by the group in 2009 won.
"We weren't prepared for what happened in 2009," said Larry Nilles, vice president of Wake NCAE. "We're going to be ready this time."
The Wake County Republican Party is supporting Heather Losurdo in District 3, Venita Peyton in District 4, Cynthia Matson in District 5, Williams in District 6 and board Chairman Ron Margiotta in District 8.
Money may decide
An indication of how well the candidates and the various political groups are doing will be demonstrated this week when they have to submit updated campaign finance reports to elections officials. More than $340,000 was spent in the 2009 elections, an amount that could go higher with all the national attention the Wake student assignment changes have generated.
Voters will also have a chance to hear directly from the candidates at five forums being sponsored by WakeUP Wake County and the League of Women Voters of Wake County.
Williams said she won't be able to attend the District 6 forum Thursday because of a prior commitment.
Listening to voters
Candidates agree that this year's races will be a referendum on what has taken place since 2009.
"I know we're talking with different people, but people are telling me they like the direction that the school system has been taking," Williams said.
But Kushner said people want a change.
"They want to see an end to the bickering that has gone on in the school board in the last two years," Kushner said. "They want more certainty in what will happen in the next few years."
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