RALEIGH — With elections more than a month away, donors have funneled record numbers of campaign dollars directly to candidates for the Wake County school board, showing ramped-up interest in where Wake's 146,000-student system is headed.
County election records filed last week show that 11 of the 14 candidates - three don't have to file because they are spending less than $1,000 - have collected more than $238,000. Nearly $28,000 has been donated to political action committees that will be involved in the five school board races, creating a total jackpot of more than a quarter million dollars for TV ads, consultants, mailers and other campaign expenses.
In addition, the political parties, which together spent more than $100,000 in school board races in 2009, have yet to file more recent financial reports. The hundreds of thousands of dollars being devoted to the races pale in comparison to the hundreds of millions spent on national races. But the giving indicates how seriously Wake residents and political figures are taking the campaigns.
Andy Taylor, an N.C. State University political scientist, said the piles of money flowing into the races shows the increasing visibility of the system and the battles that have been waged for the past two years, some marked by a blaze of national media attention. The Republicans who have led the board are in the midst of changing the school assignment system to place higher value on sending students to schools closer to their homes, raising fears among many Democrats of racially isolated schools.
"I think what used to be considered a sort of backwater not only of politics but also of municipal politics, school board races specifically, have become highly competitive races about issues that are important to at least a sizable portion of the county's population," Taylor said.
2007 and 2009
The more than $238,000 raised so far by the individual candidates eclipses the previous record of $167,000 raised during the entire 2007 school board election campaign. The candidates raised $155,000 in 2009. But once money from political action committees and the parties is included, the amount raised in 2009 exceeded $340,000.
About a third of the money this year has come from five donors. John and Ann Campbell, top executives of a management consultant company, gave $48,000 to Democratic candidates and a political action committee. Businessman Art Pope, his wife, Katherine, and businessman Bob Luddy gave $40,000 to Republican candidates who tend to back the school board's present direction. Art Pope said he did not coordinate his giving with Luddy, but gave money to make sure voters have a clear idea of the issues in the election.
"I hope that the money will be used to educate the voters and encourage a higher voter turnout, and that the informed voters will choose an excellent school board," he said. "I hope that the school board is successful in improving education in Wake County; they are working hard to do that.".
The Campbells did not return calls for comment.
In 2009, a Republican-backed ticket took control of the officially nonpartisan board with healthy victories in mostly suburban districts. To change that, Democrats will have to retain each of their four seats on the nine-member board, and defeat board Chairman Ron Margiotta in his Apex power base.
In that race, Margiotta has collected more than $40,000 in contributions, compared with more than $26,000 for Susan Evans, his Democratic challenger. In District 6, Democratic endorsee Christine Kushner also has raised more than $40,000, compared with about $27,000 for her Republican-endorsed opponent, Donna Williams.
Before this year, only two Wake school board candidates had raised more than $40,000 in a campaign.
The high level of interest in this year's races represents an increase over the 2009 races, where voters unhappy with assignment policies and long bus rides turned out in significant numbers to overthrow a Democratic majority.
This week, Capitol Broadcasting CEO Jim Goodmon is one of the hosts for a Wake County Democratic Party fundraiser.
"There's a lot more energy and interest around the school board election than there was in 2009," said Mack Paul, chair of the Wake County Democratic Party, citing the Campbells as examples of Wake County residents who have been troubled by recent developments on the board. "I think it's a clear indication that people don't want to get caught sleeping like they did in 2009."
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