The most expensive campaign in Wake County school board history has raised at least $385,000 and funded a flurry of campaign ads that have become progressively more negative heading into Tuesday's election.
Republican school board candidates and allies have charged that Democratic candidates will block neighborhood schools and linked them to the NAACP's Rev. William Barber.
Democratic school board candidates and their supporters have accused the Republican candidates of promoting a tea party agenda and jeopardizing the district's federal funding and high school accreditation.
"The final week of the election is always intense," said Mack Paul, chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party. The daily stream of campaign ads has been made possible by a record amount of contributions, some of which has gone to groups that don't have to publicly identify their donors until later.
The latest campaign finance reports show that the 14 school board candidates have raised $385,909 .
In addition, several outside groups not connected to the candidates have spent tens of thousands of dollars in campaign mailers. Only partial campaign finance reports are in for these groups and no updated reports are in yet for the political parties.
Reports on file show that the various candidates, political groups and political action committees have reported raising $385,909.
"This amount of money is just outrageous," said school board chairman Ron Margiotta, who has been a target of many negative mailers and who has responded with his own negative pieces.
Margiotta has been targeted because he represents a key seat. Five of the nine school board seats will be voted on Tuesday. If Margiotta wins, Republicans will at least retain their 5-4 majority. Democrats would need to win all five seats to regain the majority.
Democratic-leaning groups have been especially active during this election, sending out pieces charging that the tea party is "on the verge of taking over Wake County schools."
"They're desperate and they're frightened," said Susan Bryant, chairwoman of the Wake County Republican Party. "This is their last desperate chance to have any impact on the school board."
The groups have made their tea party allegations in part because school board candidate Heather Losurdo and school board vice chairman John Tedesco, whose seat isn't up until 2013, have both spoken at tea party rallies.
"This is vile and vicious advertising," said Margiotta, who denies ever speaking at a tea party event.
A repeated charge in the mailers attacking Margiotta is that Wake County schools could lose $80 million in funding. That's based on the possibility that the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights could withhold Wake's federal funding because of its investigation of the board's decision to eliminate busing for socioeconomic diversity.
"It is rare to withhold federal funds, because OCR is required by law to seek voluntary compliance before seeking to cut off funds," said David Thomas, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education. "In our experience, recipients do comply."
One link among the Democrat-leaning groups is activist Dean Debnam, who is the director of the N.C. Futures Action Fund, which has paid for mailers and will be buying television ads. Two of Debnam's employees are officers for a group called Common Sense Matters, which has received funding from N.C. Futures Action to send out mailers.
Debnam also runs Public Policy Polling, which Margiotta charges has been running push polls designed to discourage voters from backing Republican candidates. Debnam did not return requests for comment.
"You have to fight fire with fire," Paul said. "People like Dean Debnam recognize that you need to come up with a lot of money."
Another connection is Raleigh attorney Michael Weisel, who has been active in state Democratic Party politics and is the attorney representing three of the groups that have been sending mailers or criticizing the Republican board candidates.
Scott Anderson, executive director of the N.C. Association of Educators, confirmed that the organization has given money to several of these groups for their Wake school board mailers.
"We certainly support efforts to have a school board that is more reflective of a community that supports public education," Anderson said.
Republican school board member Chris Malone, whose seat is not up for re-election this year, criticized the groups.
"The education establishment seems to think only people who believe like they do should be on the school board," said Malone, who has announced he'll run for a seat in the state House next year. "I don't think the public agrees with that."
The Republican school board candidates have received assistance from Civitas Action, which is largely funded by conservative businessman Art Pope.
The group has sent out mailers saying that candidates like Margiotta support school choice and teacher merit pay.
"Unlike the other side, we are discussing policy not personalities," said Francis DeLuca, head of Civitas Action. "They stand for nothing but winning elections and do not really have the best interest of the individual student in mind."
The individual candidates are also escalating the negative talk.
Democratic school board candidates Kevin Hill, an incumbent running in District 3 in northeast Raleigh, and Susan Evans, who is running against Margiotta in District 8 in southwest Wake, have both criticized "the failed leadership" of Margiotta in recent campaign mailers.
Margiotta is responding with mailers saying Barber, president of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, wants people to vote for Evans. Barber fought the elimination of the diversity policy; he has been arrested at school board meetings and filed complaints that have led to the federal civil rights investigation and an accreditation review.
One of Margiotta's mailers has side-by-side photos of Evans and Barber below the words: "They have the same agenda."
Evans spoke out at school board meetings last year urging the board not to drop the diversity policy but now says she supports an assignment policy that would provide balanced schools and stability.
"These are completely factual," Margiotta said of the mailers.
Evans did not return calls for comment. But Paul said the efforts to link Evans and Barber are racially motivated.
"Republicans have a long history of trying to raise racial implications and this is consistent with that," Paul said.