The Wake County school board Kevin Hill joined four years ago is far different from the one he hopes to stay on for another four years.
Hill has gone from board chairman to being a member on the losing side of a string of 5-4 votes approved by the Republican majority that took office in 2009.
Now Hill faces three challengers for the District 3 North Raleigh seat who generally agree with the changes made in Wake over the past two years.
"I'm dismayed at how it has become so politicized," said Hill, 57, a retired Wake school educator endorsed by the Wake County Democratic Party. "I'm not naive enough to think that I can stop it."
Hill is opposed by Heather Losurdo, a self-employed mother; Jennifer Mansfield, a school volunteer; and Eric Wayne Squires, a computer engineer. "People in District 3 have been underrepresented and it's time they had a leader who will listen to them," said Losurdo, 40.
But what could help Hill is that the groups who united in 2009 to elect the new board majority have fractured.
Losurdo has been endorsed by the Wake County Republican Party and most members of the school board majority.
Jennifer Mansfield, who has been backed by the Wake Schools Community Alliance, said she expects to support the board majority on most issues. But she contends Losurdo, former president of the Northern Wake Republican Club, would be a "rubber stamp" for the majority.
"You've got to look at things objectively," said Mansfield, 43, "I don't think she will do that."
But Mansfield also wants to ease concerns of voters who fear backing her instead of Losurdo could help Hill win.
If no candidate gets a majority of the vote Oct. 11, the second-place finisher can request a Nov. 6 run-off.
Squires has a similar message as Mansfield but has far less money and organizational support.
"We should put the kids first," said Squires, 48. "We need to send a message to the big parties if you want to set up in Wake County, we don't want them. We want our schools to be nonpartisan."
Hill, who calls himself the "principled principal" in his campaign ads, emphasizes his nearly 30 years as a Wake teacher, assistant principal and principal. He said his background will help the board determine how their actions affect education.
"When they're talking about budget cuts, I can predict how they're going to impact the classroom," Hill said.
Vote on 'entire package'
Mansfield charges that Hill talks about his education background because he doesn't want to run on his record.
"He really has nothing to show for the past four years on the board," Mansfield said.
Hill said he's worked behind the scenes to help schools and principals directly.
One part of Hill's record that could cost him votes is his decision to oppose converting Wakefield Elementary School back to a traditional-calendar schedule. The school made the switch to a year-round calendar in 2007 to deal with an expected growth spurt that largely never materialized because of the recession.
Hill thinks Wakefield should stay on a year-round calendar because of expected growth when the economy improves.
"It's my hope that voters will look at the entire package," Hill said. "If voters want to go to the polls and vote on a single issue, there's nothing I can do about that."
Losurdo has campaigned to focus on student achievement, provide parental choice in student assignment and promote community involvement. But she's also come under fire from independent groups who've set up a website and sent out campaign mailers accusing her of making extremist statements and being a "Tea Party candidate" who will hurt the school system.
The District 3 seat is pivotal to Democrats because they would need to win it - and the other four seats on the ballot - to regain the majority. Republicans hope to re-elect Ron Margiotta in District 8 and elect Losurdo in District 3 to strengthen their sometimes shaky majority.
"They're intimidated by me," said Losurdo, who has spoken at Tea Party rallies. "They haven't attacked me on the issues of what I will do for Wake County."
One thing on which the candidates agree, but for different reasons, is that there are problems with the new student assignment plan, slated to be used for the 2012-13 school year.
The board is set to vote Oct. 18 on a plan that eliminates busing for socioeconomic diversity in favor of sending students to schools near their homes.
Losurdo said she is concerned some neighborhoods may no longer be sent to their current high schools. She's also worried about the 10 to 15 percent of families who are not expected to get their top choice in the new selection lottery that will be used to fill schools.
"It may be best to slow things and wait another year," Losurdo said.
Mansfield said she's concerned the new plan doesn't include a guaranteed "base assignment" for families. Instead, the new plan would have families pick from several choices with priority given if they pick their closest school.
Hill said he's concerned the new plan doesn't do enough to prevent schools from having large numbers of low-performing students. But he said he's not advocating a return to the old diversity policy.
"The old student assignment plan is water under the bridge," he said.