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School board argues over partisan elections

By Rebecca Rider
rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Sparks flew at Monday night’s Board of Education meeting as the board discussed the possibility of becoming a partisan body.

The board reviewed a proposed resolution drafted by board lawyer Ken Soo at the request of Board Chair Josh Wagner. According to Wagner, should it be approved by the General Assembly, the resolution would allow the school board to have a primary like other local boards and to whittle the field down to one Democratic and one Republican candidate per seat for November elections.

“It wouldn’t change the seats, it wouldn’t change the election years, it would only pertain to partisan affiliation,” Wagoner said.

However, some members of the board objected.

“Just once, I would like the majority of this board to focus on our main purpose for existence: our students,” board member Jean Kennedy said.

Kennedy said she was “personally offended” by the resolution, that she believed it would pull the board’s focus from the students and that it was a “covert attempt to disenfranchise minority participation from this body.” According to Kennedy, seat boundaries — specifically for seat 5 and seat 6 — seemed to have been altered.

Board member Travis Allen said he didn’t believe that the move would deny anyone participation and that it “streamlines the election process for the board.”

But Kennedy again pointed out that two of the seats seemed to have been restructured.

“You want to tell me how this won’t impact anybody?” she asked.

At that point, Soo spoke up. The seat descriptions had been pulled from the Rowan County Board of Elections and from a consent order regarding seat 6, he said. Any discrepancies may have been an error on his part, Soo said.

“The intent was to leave the geographical boundaries of the districts the same,” he said.

The Board of Elections was not able to confirm Tuesday the boundaries of seats 5 and 6. Kennedy and Wagner had another heated exchange, and Kennedy said she would check with the Board of Elections about the boundaries.

In an interview after the meeting, Wagner said he’d had positive conversations about the possibility with several other board members — but acknowledged he had not been able to talk to Kennedy about it.

Kennedy said she would check with the Board of Elections, and Wagner clarified the intention was to leave the seat boundaries as they had been. He then turned to the rest of the board and argued that “every person on this board has reaped the benefits” of being endorsed by a political party.

“I don’t understand how you do that in good conscience and then pretend it doesn’t apply,” he said.

Wagner said afterward he believed if members are going to ask for or if they receive involuntary endorsement from a party, they should not have an issue with being associated with the party on a ballot.

Board member Dr. Richard Miller also opposed the resolution.

“This is a monumental — this is not a small change,” he said. “This is a monumental change of how this Board of Education would do business.”

Miller said he saw no potential benefits for students, and that he believed it would allow party ideology to interfere with educational practices.

“All I can see partisan races doing is diminishing the school board’s ability to focus on the real needs of educating 20,000 students,” he said.

The move would also make it difficult for those registered as unaffiliated or other to run for the office — a not insignificant number. According to the State Board of Elections website, 27,396 of Rowan County’s 95,615 voters are registered unaffiliated.

“That’s not what we stand for,” he said. “That’s the wrong education to be sending to students.”

Miller himself is registered as unaffiliated and said he took the resolution personally.

“I am beyond offended. I am incensed,” he said.

He and Wagner shared another sharp exchange about endorsements. Board member Dean Hunter spoke up and said he was “shocked” at what he’d heard Monday night and said he was in favor of the resolution.

“It’s naïve,” he said. “It’s almost wrong for anybody on this board … to act as if (politics) doesn’t matter. Because it does matter. I could give vivid examples, even of some things that transpired here tonight, why politics does matter. So for any of us to act as if it doesn’t, that you don’t need help, want help, that to me is wrong. So I am in favor of it.”

The board agreed to confirm seats with the Board of Elections and bring the issue back for further discussion at a later meeting.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.

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