Eleven candidates are running for four open seats on the Johnston County Board of Education. Only eight will make it onto the November ballot.
Though the race is nonpartisan, voters will have to weed out three candidates during the March primary election. Under the rules of Johnston’s nonpartisan school board election, the November ballot can have no more than twice as many candidates seats available, said Leigh Anne Price, supervisor of elections.
Two incumbents are running to keep their seats on the school board: Peggy Smith of McGee’s Crossroads, a former principal of East Clayton Elementary School, and Mike Wooten, a banker who makes his home in Princeton.
Two other school board members are not running for reelection. They are Donna White of Clayton, who’s running instead for the N.C. House of Representatives, and Keith Branch of Smithfield, who’s seeking a seat on the Johnston County Board of Commissioners.
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The nine newcomers are Dale Bender of Clayton, John Taylor Brantley of Princeton, Teresa Grant of the Cleveland community, Summer Hamrick of Smithfield, Jeffrey Jennings of Clayton, Ronald Johnson of Clayton, Crystal Kimpson Roberts of Smithfield, Todd Sutton of Kenly and Chip Swartz of Clayton.
School board members serve four-year terms. Johnston County has held school board primaries just twice in the last decade, in 2006 and 2010.
Of North Carolina’s 100 counties, 83 hold nonpartisan school board elections. Johnston County joined that majority in 1998.
State lawmakers tried to reverse that trend this past legislative session. Two bills would have made school board elections partisan; neither made it far.
Rep. George Cleveland, an Onslow County Republican, sponsored one of the bills. “Partisan elections give the voter a much better feel for who he is voting for and what the individual’s philosophy may be,” he said. “I’m not saying they all have the same philosophies, but I think we will get more honesty in the education process.”
In the past decade, North Carolina counties have held school boards primaries about 16 percent of the time. That includes both partisan and nonpartisan counties.
In March, 11 other nonpartisan school boards across the state will hold primary elections, according to the State Board of Elections. Clearly, interest in the lower-ballot race is high.
Why the interest?
Candidate Teresa Grant said it’s great so many people have shown interest in the school board.
“We have one of the best education systems,” she said. “It’s obvious because so many people are trying to move into the county and the good job the school board members have done.
“The tremendous growth has been hard to deal with. That’s been a challenge. I think they have done a good job meeting those needs.”
Dale Bender thinks interest in the school board is for just the opposite reason. “If 11 people are running, that tells you people aren’t happy with the ways things are,” she said.
“There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed,” Bender said. “Every candidate says teachers need more pay to retain them. We need to not lose them to other states or counties.
“We keep saying it, but I don’t think we are doing it.”
Getting their names out
Whatever the reason for the large filing turnout, the candidates now need to prepare for an elimination round that will come much sooner than November. They are all trying different campaign techniques to survive the March primary.
Grant rode in at least seven Christmas parades in Johnston County, and she is looking for town events she can attend to meet folks. She also baked treats with her kids and grandchildren and delivered them to all of the firefighters working on the holidays.
“That has to be a family tradition now whether I win or not. We had so much fun,” Grant said. “My grandson probably climbed on every firetruck in Johnston County.”
Bender is taking to social media, as are many of the candidates, to get the word out about her campaign. Also, many people know Bender from her many years working with Special Olympics, and she went on to found Hopes-N-Dreams Inc., a nonprofit that provides those with special needs recreation and sports activities.
Another candidate worked as a school resource officer for years, and now students and teachers are campaigning on his behalf.
Ronald Johnson is a criminal investigator with the Smithfield Police Department now, but he was an SRO from 2007 to 2013. He worked with at-risk kids in after-school programs, and they must have appreciated it: Those students are taking to social media, where they are posting short videos of how much they like and support Johnson.
“They are sacrificing their time,” Johnson said. “I’m going to utilize the teachers and students I’ve had the pleasure of working with.”
“They are now helping me in ways I never thought they could six years ago,” he said. “I still don’t consider myself a politician; I’m just a police officer that wants to help.”
Johnson plans to hold a few fundraisers at places like bowling lanes. But instead of raising the money for his race, he wants to give the money to teachers for classroom supplies.