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N.C. School Boards Resist Declaring Party Affiliation

Candidates for local school boards in two North Carolina districts may soon have to announce their party affiliation—but some current board members are not happy about that plan, which they say would put unnecessary political weight on board members' decisions and could set a precedent around the state.

Guilford County, N.C.'s school board voted this week to reject state senate bill 317, which would require board candidates to declare their party affiliation, the Greensboro News-Record reports. Another similar bill, which became law in June, requires Lee County board candidates to do the same.

Between 10 and 15 of the state's 115 school districts currently have board members with announced party affiliations—but most of those are long-standing arrangements. "This is the first time I can think of boards becoming partisan," said Leanne Winner, the director of governmental relations for the North Carolina School Boards Association.

Kenneth J. Meier, a professor of policy at Texas A&M University, said that a survey of the 1800 largest districts in the country found that since 2001, between approximately 10 and 14 percent of districts held partisan board elections. He said that if anything, there appeared to be a slight dip in that number over time: Just 10 percent of districts had partisan elections in 2013, compared to 13.3 in 2001.

Bill 317's author, Republican state senator Trudy Wade, has argued that declaring party affiliation would make board members' educational agenda and philosophy clearer to voters—and would make being a school board member more competitive. The House's version of the Guilford bill, which would create a referendum on the question of partisan board elections, was on the House floor as of late this week, but had not yet passed.

Rebecca Buffington, a first-term board member in Guilford County, said she was concerned that being tied to a political party would cause board members to vote on issues based on politics and gaining votes rather than what was in students' and the district's best interest. She said politicizing the races could make school board positions into political stepping stones: "Do we want our children to be in the charge of someone who's got their eye somewhere else?"

Guilford County, which includes the city of Greensboro, is home to the third-largest district in the state.

School board seats have increasingly become political launching pads in other large districts in the Tarheel state. In Wake County, which includes Raleigh, the school board (which is nominally nonpartisan but whose members have generally made their affiliations known) has fielded a number of members who have later run for other political offices. A bill that redefined some school board election policies in Wake County, ratified in June, kept that county's elections nonpartisan.

Wade's version of Bill 317 would also initially have set a two-year term limit for board members in Guilford County and change the election cycle so that elections would be held all at once rather than being staggered, as is the case in the current system. A revision by the House's education committee currently reduces the number of board members to nine, sets a four-year term limit, and would send the question of whether members must announce party affiliation to a referendum.

Buffington said that while the revised bill was more palatable, the board would oppose any version of the bill. She was concerned, too, that two-year terms could make for a school board that top-quality superintendents were uninterested in working with.

The American School Board Journal wrote about politics in school boards last year. And we've covered a number of board races this past year—in Los Angeles and New Orleans—that have seen large donations and intensely political races.

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