When House Republicans earlier this month voted to make Transylvania County’s Board of Education elections partisan, they highlighted a growing trend.
The number of partisan school board elections has doubled in the past five years, according to the N.C. School Boards Association. Data from the association shows that of North Carolina’s 112 elected school boards, 23 are now elected on a partisan basis.
In 2018, Rockingham County will be partisan, and if the Transylvania bill passes the Senate, that will make 25. The association’s official position on whether school boards should be partisan is that it’s a local issue.
My view of transparency is that the voter has all the information possible
Harnett County Republican Sen. Ronald Rabin, supporting partisan school-board elections
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In Rockingham County, voters decided in a referendum that school board elections should be partisan. House Bill 1133, Transylvania’s partisan election bill, however, has erupted into a war of words with Transylvania County school board members accusing state government of imposing politics on them.
“This seems to be something that he has pulled out of thin air,” Marty Griffin, a board member, said of the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chris Whitmire, a Transylvania County Republican.
Griffin and the other four board members are all on record opposing the bill. Editorials in the Transylvania Times have also blasted it. “Nonpartisan elections have been working just fine for years,” Griffin said. “This is unnecessary. Whitmire never contacted anyone on the board about this.”
Whitmire is a former Transylvania County school board member.
“Voters don’t always have every detail of every candidate, and being able to see someone’s basic political affiliation — that’s what they’ve been asking for,” Whitmire said.
I can at least speak for my district and say very few
Wake County Democratic Rep. Grier Martin, on how many constituents want more partisanship
Last year, a handful of bills sought to make school board elections partisan. Some were local. Others, like House Bill 324, aimed to make partisanship statewide. Rep. George Cleveland, a Jacksonville Republican and the sponsor of that bill, explained it by saying, “there are material differences in the philosophy of education between individuals and parties. Partisan elections give the voter a much better feel for who he is voting for and what the individual’s philosophy may be.”
Other Republicans, like Sen. Ronald Rabin, a Harnett County Republican, considered it election transparency. “My view of transparency is that the voter has all the information possible,” Rabin said.
Democrats argue the opposite. They say the state doesn’t need partisan elections in traditionally nonpartisan offices.
When sparring with Rabin last year over a local election bill, Rep. Brad Salmon, a Harnett County Democrat, said it was better policy to leave such decisions at the local level.
Opponents also cite significant logistical issues: Partisan elections require primaries that cost counties money. Unaffiliated candidates face challenges standing out. Potential talent is lost when qualified candidates who must remain publicly nonpartisan, like certain federal and state employees, simply dodge the partisan fray.
The discussion stirs passion. Earlier this month, Whitmire referenced the Gettysburg Address as the House Transylvania debate morphed into nearly 25 minutes of lively and philosophical rhetoric about partisanship and society, Donald Trump and voter anger, patriotism and education. The crescendo came when Whitmire acknowledged the Transylvania County board opposed his bill.
At that point, Rep. Grier Martin, a Raleigh Democrat, asked his fellow lawmakers how many of their constituents not involved in politics really wanted more partisanship.
The House gallery was standing-room-only with elected officials from the N.C. League of Municipalities visiting Raleigh on a lobbying blitz. When Martin answered his own question — “I can at least speak for my district and say very few” — half the gallery appeared to nod in agreement.
Staff writer Dan Boylan
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