GOP legislators just rejected one of the most qualified school board nominees ever

J.B. Buxton
J.B. Buxton

If you want to know what's wrong with politics in North Carolina, the case of J.B. Buxton provides a representative — and discouraging — example.

Gov. Roy Cooper in May 2017 nominated Buxton for a seat on the state Board of Education. Buxton is extraordinarily well qualified for that non-paying post — if you think qualifications, experience and that sort of thing matter to this current group of legislative leaders.

Buxton was a Morehead Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill and received a master's degree in public affairs from Princeton. He was a high school teacher and coach for a year. He was a White House Fellow for the Domestic Policy Council. He was Gov. Mike Easley's education adviser.

He was a lobbyist for the state Board of Education and later was the deputy state superintendent who ran the department, supervising curriculum and instruction, school turnarounds, early childhood programs, teacher and principal support programs and all the department does. Under his leadership from 2007 to 2009, the department intervened in 135 schools and six low-performing districts and supported the expansion of the More at Four pre-kindergarten program.

Since then Buxton, 48, has operated his own education consulting firm, advising foundations (such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) and state education departments; he counsels Republicans at least as much as Democrats. His three children have graduated from Wake public schools or will next year.

Buxton was one of the most qualified nominees for the Board of Education — ever. In addition, Buxton helped start the well-regarded PAVE Southeast Raleigh Charter School, of which he's board chairman. That should have endeared him to Republicans in the legislature, who support the expansion of charter schools.

But in votes largely along party lines, legislators voted against confirming two of Cooper's three nominees to the Board of Education, including Buxton, a Democrat who ran for state schools superintendent in 2004.

Republicans also voted down another highly qualified candidate, Sandra Byrd, a former Buncombe County Teacher of the Year. Republicans justified voting against Byrd because they said she was involved in a lawsuit challenging legislation that shifted power from the Board of Education to the state superintendent. But Byrd wasn't involved in that suit.

Republicans offered no reason for their opposition to Buxton. House Majority Leader John Bell, R-Wayne, who led the charge against Buxton, would tell reporters only: "Just people (in the House GOP caucus) felt they were better off without him on the school board," he said.

Legislators will be "better off" without Buxton on the board? In a caucus full of over-inflated egos, that is a legislative-centric view. What matters is whether North Carolina would be better with Buxton on the board, not whether legislators would be. Note that Bell didn't make the case that North Carolina would be better off without Buxton's extensive education experience.

Buxton met with legislators earlier this year and said none raised objections. He told me that no Republican legislators gave him an explanation for why they rejected him. Kudos to the small number of GOP legislators who followed their conscience and voted for Buxton.

"I think at the end of the session, with all the confirmations they were going to vote on, they picked out a few as their message to the governor, and I think was one of those," Buxton said. What was the message? "I think the message was: We'll make decisions on appointments."

The Buxton case is another example of Republicans' ego-driven, power-hungry approach. Most businesses and organizations want to add talent to their organization; for most GOP legislators, that's not as important as asserting their dominance and sticking it to Cooper.

Republicans have placed a sneaky proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall. It asks voters if they want "to clarify the appointment authority of the Legislative and the Judicial Branches." But what it likely does is give the governor's appointment powers to the legislature.

If it passes, you can see the future of appointments in state government:

Qualifications won't matter.

Drescher, opinion/solutions editor, is at jdrescher@newsobserver.com; 919-829-4515; @john_drescher.

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