Ron Margiotta, the chairman of the Wake County school board, was ousted by a political newcomer Tuesday - a blow to the Republican board majority, which has reigned for the past two years.
But political control of the board will remain in limbo until next month, when North Raleigh voters decide a runoff between Democratic incumbent Kevin Hill and Republican challenger Heather Losurdo in District 3.
For now, the nine-member board is locked: four Republicans, four Democrats.
Democrat Susan Evans, an Apex accountant, upset Margiotta in southwest Wake County's District 8. Evans had 52.1 percent of the vote. Margiotta had 47.81 percent. The district includes Margiotta's home territory of Apex, which he had long represented as a lone conservative voice until a general Republican takeover in 2009.
While that race was seen as the district Republicans were most likely to win, Hill's seat was seen as the most vulnerable one held by the Democrats.
Hill led a field of four District 3 candidates with 49.7 percent of the vote. He needed more than 50 percent to win. Losurdo was in second place in that race with 39.87 percent of the vote. She has until noon on Oct. 20 to submit a written request for a runoff. She said Tuesday that she intended to do so.
Meanwhile, Democratic incumbent Keith Sutton easily held onto his seat in Southeast Raleigh's District 4.
Democratic newcomers Jim Martin and Christine Kushner also picked up open seats. Martin filled Anne McLaurin's District 5 seat, which she chose not to defend. And Kushner won in central Raleigh's District 6, where Carolyn Morrison opted not to run.
"Our message resonated, that we wanted to end the divisiveness and we wanted stronger governance on the board," Kushner said.
Four Republicans serve in districts that were not up for election this year.
New battles ahead
Evans said her victory over Margiotta was the culmination of two years of effort by groups worried about the changes being made by the board majority, which took power in 2009 and made changes such as eliminating efforts to keep school enrollments diverse.
"This represents a lot of effort on the part of people who felt the community needed to heal, and they all rallied around me," Evans said.
Margiotta did not immediately return messages seeking comment Tuesday night.
With that fight settled, Republicans will seek to strike back in the District 3 runoff to retain control of the board.
"I look forward to it," Losurdo said Tuesday night. "It needs to be about what a difference I'll make in the lives of thousands of children and families."
Martin, who beat Cynthia Matson in District 5, said that the Democratic candidates offered tangible ideas for improving the school system while Republicans were throwing out sound bites and playing politics.
"The voters didn't want anymore partisanship," Martin said. "I've always said you can trust the educated voters."
Martin said the board majority, particularly Margiotta, were hurt by the way they conducted business.
"This is a board that complained about the arrogance of prior boards but took arrogance to a whole new level."
After a tumultuous two years under Margiotta's control, some voters seemed ready to divert from the Republican path. Although likely to continue to emphasize proximity and continuity in school assignments, as the Margiotta-led board has, a Democratic majority would almost certainly reintroduce the importance of diversity to the system.
That could bring significant changes to the student assignment plan developed by Superintendent Tony Tata and staff. It's slated for board approval Tuesday.
Several of the Democratic board candidates, including Evans and Hill, have argued that the new assignment plan doesn't have strong enough measures in place to allow students from low-performing areas to get into high-performing schools. They say they're concerned that the current plan could result in the creation of high-poverty and low-achieving schools.
Martin said he'd hope the board majority would talk with the new members before adopting the new student assignment plan.
Money fueled bitter race
The election attracted national publicity by media who portrayed the conflict as an attempt by tea party-influenced GOP members as an attempt to dismantle Wake County's longstanding efforts to balance school populations either by race or socio-economic background.
The election followed months of campaigning that took on an increasing vitriolic tone, with much of the most heated material coming from Democratic-leaning organizations not formally tied to the candidates. A record total of at least $400,000 was raised during the campaign, fueling a stream of campaign mailers, television ads and radio ads.
Finance reports released Tuesday showed one group, Common Sense Matters, had spent more than $52,000 in mailers attacking Margiotta and Losurdo. The group received funding for the mailers from an organization that got some of its money from the N.C. Association of Educators.
Margiotta was portrayed as a divisive leader who was a tool of the tea party, endangering Wake schools' reputation and millions in federal funding. Evans was shown side by side in a mailer with state NAACP leader the Rev. William Barber, in a communication that Democrats complained as having a racist tone.
Indeed, the rhetoric continued after Evans' victory. "Congratulations to Susan Evans for defeating tea party ringleader Ron Margiotta," David Parker, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said in a written statement. "I have no doubt that Susan will work hard to restore the confidence, trust and integrity lost under Margiotta's failed leadership. Ron Margiotta's days of making Wake County Schools the butt of national jokes is now over."
Susan Bryant, chairwoman of the Wake County Republican Party, did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Turnout shows concern
The additional money and focus on the race helped result Tuesday in a turnout of 21.4 percent of the voters. About 11 percent of the voters turned out for the 2009 elections that led to the election of the new Republican majority.
Future elections could also change control of the board. Republican Debra Goldman, who has at times sided with the Democrats, has two years left to serve. It's unclear whether she will seek reelection. In addition, northeastern Wake board member Chris Malone has announced his intention to run for the state legislature.
The 2009 election of four new Republican board members joined with Margiotta in forming a new majority that has made several changes over the past two years. The most contentious was the vote last year to eliminate the use of socioeconomic diversity as a factor in student assignment. The vote triggered protests, arrests, a federal civil rights investigation and a review of the accreditation of Wake's high schools.