Editor's note: Click here for a profile on Heather Losurdo, Kevin Hill's election opponent.
After a successful career in Wake County public schools, Kevin Hill thought about what his education and life's work had meant to him.
Hill, 57, retired from Wake schools in 2004 after decades as a Wake County teacher, assistant principal and principal. As the 2007 school board elections neared, he had already started a second career training young teachers at N.C. State University. But he wanted to do more.
"I've had the advantages in life that a good education provides," Hill said at his North Raleigh home. "I needed to do some community service - I wanted to give back."
Hill has lived in Raleigh since junior high school. His board performance since earning a seat in 2007 has been marked by a preference for data-based solutions and references to his experiences in public schools.
Hill came to Raleigh as the child of an IBM employee in the late 1960s, at the dawn of the influx of families that has increased the Triangle's population by hundreds of thousands. But with his decades of living and working in Wake County, Hill is part of the old guard, with deep roots in Raleigh and in the Wake school system.
Republicans trying to displace Hill in the District 3 runoff election paint the Democrat as aligned with President Barack Obama, Gov. Bev Perdue and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has said he's watching the race closely.
"I didn't realize I was part of the Obama-Perdue machine," Hill said. "I feel that based on my experience and track record in Wake County of working for children for 35 years, I should win based on that."
Education all the time
Forty-six years ago, Hill's family moved from Rochester, Minn., to North Raleigh, where he attended Carroll Junior High and played junior varsity basketball. He then went to Sanderson High School, where he met his wife, Patrice.
The thoroughness that colleagues say is a hallmark of Hill's work extends even to his recollections of their romance, which blossomed when they worked together at a pharmacy in the 12th grade and led to their marriage at age 19.
"Our first date was Feb. 13, Friday the 13th, 1970," Hill said. "We went to see Blood, Sweat & Tears at Dorton Arena."
He also worked after school, delivering the Raleigh Times newspaper. And before moving here, he delivered the Minneapolis Star-Tribune beginning at age 9. "So I've been in the workforce for 49 years now," he said.
Otherwise, he led a typical North Hills life of the 1960s, pedaling to the store for Icees, waiting weekly for the Charles Chips man to deliver savory snacks, and hanging out at North Hills Mall on Six Forks Road. Back then, it had a roof.
At Sanderson, he found a life-changing teacher junior year who inspired him to major in and ultimately teach history at N.C. State. He also earned a master's degree in education at the university. Since then, it's pretty much been all education, all the time.
Hill has taught at West Millbrook Middle and Millbrook High, worked as assistant principal at Ligon Middle and North Ridge Elementary schools, and served as principal at Jeffreys Grove Elementary, East Millbrook Middle, Wildwood Forest Elementary and Green Hope High School.
"Kevin has got the historical perspective; he has been in the trenches; he knows the issues that confront education," said Diane Payne, former principal of Broughton and Enloe high schools. "Kevin is just very solid; he has good judgment."
Since retiring in 2004, Hill has trained N.C. State students to become teachers and made a successful run for the school board in 2007.
School board under fire
When he entered public life, Hill joined a board led by Democrats that was criticized for introducing mandatory year-round schools, frequent student reassignments and weekly Wednesday sessions of teachers' professional learning teams.
Opponents of the former board criticized the sessions - which required early dismissal - calling them "Wacky Wednesdays." Hill was among those who believed in the value of collaborative sessions among teachers instructing the same students.
In 2009, the complexion of the board changed with the election of four new Republican members from outlying districts and an infusion of party politics. The new members formed a majority, along with incumbent Ron Margiotta, and immediately went to work to transform the system.
With a strong belief in gathering information and building consensus, Hill believes the party divide on the board since 2009 has kept the panel from accomplishing more.
"There's been partisanship and a lack of inclusion that I'm not used to," Hill said.
Heather Losurdo, Hill's opponent in the District 3 runoff, has based attacks on Hill's vote against the choice-based school assignment plan adopted on a 6-2 vote last month.
The plan is built on values of proximity, choice, stability and achievement. Hill voted no on the plan because he thought it had not been fully vetted and didn't do enough to prevent low-achievement schools.
What the plan needs, Hill said, is a thorough going-over to improve the way it's communicated to the public, a line-by-line examination of its costs and a better way to make sure low-achieving students have the chance to attend high-performing schools.
"I would not suggest going back to the drawing board," he said. "I believe there are many good components to this plan."
'Let's kick the tires'
During Wake County's record years of growth in the mid-2000s, the school board struggled to keep up with many thousands of new students annually while hanging on to a commitment to diverse schools. Newcomers often felt disenfranchised when their children went through several reassignments, and Hill didn't always let community sentiment override what he thought was the good of the entire system.
"He might not always do what you want him to do, as far as you personally in your living room," said Lauren Murray Richardson, a North Raleigh parent and Hill supporter. "But I felt like they (former board members) were trying to sort things out in the schools in terms of education, in terms of trying to do to a good job. All of a sudden, it's about who's in the tea party and who's a Democrat."
Hill took criticism from many parents in his district for his 2010 decision to allow Wakefield Elementary to stay on a year-round schedule. The move was necessary, he said, because future growth could bring enough students to the school to require as many as four year-round tracks and to coordinate with year-round middle schools. But it created widespread opposition.
"By and large, with the exception of a couple of votes, I think I've served my district well," he said, noting board members are required to consider the needs of the entire system as well as district priorities.
The new board's first act in 2009 was to depose Hill as board chairman and replace him with Margiotta.
Supporters of the Republican majority see Hill as a holdover from what they have termed an arrogant, diversity-focused group that gives less consideration to parents and children than to institutional concerns.
Not long after the polls close Tuesday, Hill will know how he's going to spend the next four years: knee-deep in controversy as a Democratic board member or spending more time teaching at N.C. State and traveling the nation's highways with Patrice on his big Honda Goldwing.
But the ultimate insider doesn't want to hit the road without putting in more time on Wake schools and working collaboratively to finish the long effort to create a new way to send students to schools.
"Let's kick the tires on it," Hill said of the plan. "Do we want to do it quickly, or do we want to do it correctly? Let's have this out."