RALEIGH — Incumbent Wake County school board member Kevin Hill defeated challenger Heather Losurdo in a runoff Tuesday to complete a Democratic sweep that knocks Republicans out of power after a turbulent two-year reign.
Hill's victory in District 3 ended a half-million-dollar, high-profile battle over control of Wake County's 146,000-student system.
The nationally publicized fight for the school board had become a proxy for political control of the county and beyond, drawing close scrutiny from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
When President Barack Obama made a stop at an Apex business, local Republicans saw it as a bid to influence the school board race.
In unofficial election totals, Hill had 52.28 percent of the vote Tuesday. The runoff was triggered after he came 51 votes shy of a majority in the Oct. 11 general election.
Coupled with the election victories of four Democratic-backed candidates last month, the win creates a new 5-4 Democratic majority.
Democrats will govern the state's largest school system for at least the next four years because only Republican-held seats will be on the 2013 ballot.
The new Democratic majority now will chart Wake's direction on challenging issues such the role of diversity in the new student assignment plan, dealing with a tight budget next year, and planning for the next bond referendum.
"The vote shows that we care very strongly about our schools in Wake County," Hill said during a victory celebration at Milton's Pizza & Pasta on Six Forks Road in North Raleigh. "It's time to take politics back off the table."
The victory came at the conclusion of Wake County's most expensive and contentious school board race. Candidates, political parties and independent groups poured at least $500,000 into mailers, TV and radio advertisements and other get-out-the-vote efforts in the five races.
The new board members will take office Dec. 6.
An expensive race
The change in power on the officially nonpartisan school board was met with concern by Losurdo and Republican board members.
In a tear-filled speech to supporters at the Milton's in Wakefield, Losurdo wished Hill well and urged him to work cooperatively with Superintendent Tony Tata.
"I doubt that ever before have so many people in this county given so much of their time and resources to a school board campaign," she said. "Not for me, but to make our schools better, and thereby make our county better."
About 29.1 percent of District 3's 70,000 voters cast ballots in Tuesday's runoff. That's 25 percent more than those who turned out Oct. 11.
Political veterans in the Triangle and elsewhere looked in astonishment as the Losurdo-Hill race picked up intensity, fundraising and vituperation as the election neared.
Progress NC Action, a liberal advocacy group not connected to Hill's campaign, unearthed and made public decades-old information about Losurdo. The North Raleigh mother of two had worked in a strip club in New Orleans and declared bankruptcy while in her 20s, later obtaining what she described as oversight of $2 billion in small business loans for First Union Bank. Progress NC Action Executive Director Gerrick Brenner said such a leap was improbable. Losurdo persisted in defending her résumé and brought forth a former supervisor Friday to back it up.
Losurdo pounded Hill as a representative of the old guard who would return to the policies of former boards. A supporting group sent out a last-minute mailer with an obviously computer-altered image purporting to depict Hill as a tie-dye-wearing, peace-sign-brandishing hippie supporting failed policies of the past.
When control of the school board came to rest on the outcome of the runoff, even more money and attention was poured on the 70,000 voters in the North Raleigh district. Losurdo raised more than $82,000, setting a record for a candidate in a Wake school board race. Hill raised only $42,000, but he was helped by Common Sense Matters, an outside liberal advocacy group that spent more than $55,000 on mailers attacking Losurdo. In response, conservative groups spent at least $16,000 on mailers aiding Losurdo's cause.
Democratic activist Dean Debnam came up with the strategy of attacking Republican school board candidates as "tea party extremists." Debnam formed a group that provided $105,000 - with some of the money coming from the N.C. Association of Educators - to give to Common Sense Matters for attack mailers.
Plan will be kept
The election won't end years of debate over school assignment in Wake County. Losurdo and Hill both said they favored keeping the choice-based plan developed by Tata and passed by the board last month. Tata's plan is designed as an alternative to Wake County's decades-old effort to promote diversity by balancing the population, first by race and then using socio-economic diversity after U.S. Supreme Court rulings changed the standards for using race.
Hill reiterated his desire to revise the plan to make sure enough seats are set aside in high-performing schools for students from low-performing areas.
Board Vice Chairman John Tedesco said Tuesday that he hopes the new board majority won't try to rehash old battles. Tedesco said he's concerned about Hill's recent support for seat set-asides. "That sounds benign when he says it," Tedesco said. "It's not. It's a quota system. That significantly changes the choice model."
A combination of growth and busing for diversity in the 2000s brought frequent reassignments and widespread discontent with former school board practices. Especially in suburban Wake, voters felt as though they were excluded from the best the school system had to offer.
By 2009, voters were ready for a change, and four new Republican board members swept into office.
Along with Apex-area board member Ron Margiotta, who lost his seat in elections last month, they formed a new majority that moved swiftly to change many long-established practices.
The Republican majority's changes, particularly eliminating the diversity policy, sparked protests and arrests over the past two years.
The Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, hailed the results as a step forward. Barber's complaints triggered a federal investigation of Wake and a review of the accreditation of the district's high schools.
"Parents, grandparents, teachers, students and community members rejected candidates who support regressive public policy that leads to resegregation of our public schools," Barber said in a written statement Tuesday.
Back to 'boring'
After all the acrimony, newly elected Democratic school board member Christine Kushner said "my goal is to return the school board to dull and boring."
She said she looked forward to working with the now GOP-minority members to end the 5-4 votes.
"I'm very hopeful we're going to have some strong governance on the school board," Kushner said. "We'll have our focus on students and teachers."