Partisan elections debated at Rowan-Salisbury school board meeting
By Rebecca Rider
SALISBURY — The idea of partisan elections for the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education is dead in the water — at least for the board itself.
The board Monday discussed a resolution in support of House Bill 42, which would put the body’s nonpartisan nature up to a countywide vote.
“It’s not a resolution to ask the state to do anything; they’ve already done that,” board Chairman Josh Wagner said at Monday’s meeting.
The topic was the source of contention at a Dec. 14 board meeting, but the issue was dropped for discussion until Rep. Harry Warren put the bill before the state legislature.
At Monday’s meeting, residents vehemently disagreed with the idea during the public comment session. Most argued that they don’t see how adding partisan politics to the mix would help the board better serve teachers and students.
“I think a partisan election is divisive, it’s unnecessary, there’s no place for it,” Mary James said.
James and others argued that the board is well-balanced politically and that shifting to a partisan election could upset that balance and would limit voter choices. James pointed out that only eight people ran for seats on the board in November and said the necessary primary tied to a partisan election would be overkill.
“It’s not like we have 50 people running,” she said.
Valeria Levy, former candidate for the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, said primaries cost money. Although school board candidates may be endorsed by political parties, making the election partisan could weaken its focus on education and create divide along party lines.
Levy said that should the board become partisan, federal employees would be prevented from running because of federal law, and that would exclude Veterans Affairs employees.
Wagner said he brought the issue up because he wanted people to acknowledge that they have benefited from party affiliation.
“I thought to pretend as though we’re not partisan — I just don’t think that makes a lot of sense,” he said.
Wagner said he was disappointed that no one showed up to speak in favor of the bill.
“My argument would be if you’re out there, and you support this, where are you?” he said.
Board member Travis Allen expressed similar frustrations and said the board is under pressure to deal with the issue, but he has not heard from anyone in favor of it.
“I feel like I’m being asked to carry the water for somebody else,” he said.
Board member Richard Miller agreed.
“Why waste our time on an issue that’s not an issue in the county?” he asked.
Partisan elections would force unaffiliated candidates like Miller to collect several thousand signatures on a petition in order to run — compared to a Democrat or Republican paying $5 at the Board of Elections.
“Those two don’t seem equal to me,” he said.
The focus should be on doing “the right thing for kids,” Miller said. He said there is a concerted effort to “consolidate power,” referencing the state’s gerrymandered election districts and recent tug-of-wars over limiting the power of the governor and the state Board of Education. If the issue didn’t start as a grassroots movement in the county, the board should stay out of it, he said.
“There is a force outside of us going on that’s trying to consolidate power,” he said, “and we should not be part of that.”
Board member Alisha Byrd said that partisanship would not help students or improve learning.
“Our sole responsibility is the children. Let’s be about the business of the children of Rowan County,” she said.
No motion was made on the issue.
“At this point, I think it’s pretty much dead at our level,” Wagner said in an interview after the meeting.
Wagner said he is interested to see how the bill fares and said that public comment raised some questions — such as Levy’s point about federal employees. Had the board been partisan a few years ago, former board member Chuck Hughes, who once worked for the VA, would have been unable to run.
Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.