News-Star: Opinion

School board election drawing a crowd

Here’s one reason so many political newcomers have filed to run for school board in Johnston County: Two incumbents members of the Board of Education aren’t seeking reelection.

Donna White of Clayton is instead seeking election to the N.C. House seat held by Leo Daughtry of Smithfield, who isn’t running again after years of service. And school board member Keith Branch of Wilson’s Mills wants to be a county commissioner. Peggy Smith of Clayton and Mike Wooten of Princeton have filed for reelection, but a fourth school board member, Larry Strickland of Pine Level, could create vacancy on the board if he wins the N.C. House seat being vacated by the retiring J.H. Langdon of McGee’s Crossroads.

As elections most often show, it’s hard to beat an incumbent officeholder, and the reasons are many. For starters, incumbents enjoy name recognition from having run and served before; political newcomers do not. Second, incumbents have built a campaign apparatus at least once before, perhaps multiple times. Political newcomers, on the other hand, are building a campaign organization for the first time.

That apparatus is important, and so is its quality. When he was a school board member, Dr. Dicky Parrish of Selma had one of the best organizations we’ve seen. On the eve of an election, Dr. Parrish could tell a reporter where he would finish in every precinct. And he could do that because he had people working for him in every precinct.

That organization made Dr. Parrish nearly invincible as a candidate; it didn’t hurt that he cared as much about kids as any school board member we’ve known. But our point is simply that political newcomers are rightly reluctant to file against incumbents who have been there and done that – and done that well.

Next November – or earlier if enough candidates file to necessitate a March primary – the newcomers for school board won’t face the campaign organizations that Mrs. White and Mr. Branch built. That alone helps explain the flurry of filings.

It’s also possible the political newcomers are unhappy with the current direction of the school board. (We might ask what that direction is, but perhaps that’s an editorial for a different day.) In any event, based on the emails candidates have sent to us, we don’t sense dissatisfaction with the status quo. If anything, the newcomers have complimented the sitting board, especially for building a largely collaborative relationship with County Commissioners, who decide the school board’s local funding. Indeed, school and county leaders have avoided the public spats initiated by past school board regimes.

Frankly, we don’t know why anyone would want to be a school board member. It’s a thankless job made harder by the fact that the state controls so much school policy and spending.

Still, the Johnston County Board of Education is doing good work. It continues on a school-building campaign started during Dr. Parrish’s years in office, and the board occasionally innovates, as it has done with Early College Academy and Middle College, for example.

It’s much too soon to even hazard a guess as to which school board candidates will emerge victorious next November. But if they can continue to build schools and occasionally make them more responsive to student needs, then they will have served the office – and the people of Johnston County – well.