North Carolina's Senate race is among the most competitive in the nation this year. But voters across the state are also weighing in on highly contested school board races fueled by parents who felt voiceless throughout the pandemic and a conservative focus on how topics like race and sex are taught in public schools.
In many North Carolina counties, the May 17 primary offers voters a long list of candidates to choose from for their local school board.
In Forsyth County, 28 candidates are vying for nine school board slots, and in Johnston County, 13 people are on the ballot to fill three open seats. In solidly Democratic Durham County, a slate of conservatives is hoping to capture a majority of the board, and a Wilmington-based political action committee has endorsed four Republicans for the New Hanover County Board of Education.
The largest school system in the state, Wake County, won't hold a school board election until November, but it's already expected to be competitive with all nine of the board's seats up for election.
"We are seeing a lot more people running and a lot of veteran school board members retiring," said Leanne Winner, executive director of the North Carolina School Boards Association.
"Many school board meetings became very contentious over the last couple of years," she added.
The increase in retirements comes after two years of pandemic-related chaos that put school boards in the spotlight. In many places, the decision to return to in-person learning and whether to mandate masks fell to school board members who are usually elected and unpaid officials.
Now, in North Carolina and across the country, some parents are voicing concern about issues like book bans and critical race theory.
Pandemic fuels parent activism
Sarah Absher said she never thought about running for school board, or any elected position, before the pandemic. But things changed once her son was home learning remotely and she felt that parents weren't being heard by her district's current board members. Now she's running in the Republican primary for a seat on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education.
"Many have advised me not to talk about Covid policies. They say people are ready to move on," she told the crowd at a student-hosted candidate forum at West Forsyth High School on May 11.
"But before we just sweep the last two years under the rug, we need to acknowledge the leaders responsible for these policies that failed you," she said, adding, "You had to play sports outside in a mask. Some of you missed proms and other important life events. So many of you, including my son, suffered learning loss because of remote learning."
All of the nine seats on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education are up for grabs this year. The school system is one of the largest in the state, consisting of 81 schools.
A majority of the candidates are parents or former educators. Seven Republicans, four Democrats and one libertarian are running in the May 17 primary for the three at-large seats on the board.
But the candidate list doesn't end there. Five Democrats are vying for two District 1 seats, which represent the urban core of Winston-Salem. Ten Republicans have filed to run in the primary for the four seats representing the more rural District 2, and one Democrat is expected to be on the ballot for District 2 in November.
Eighteen of the candidates spoke about their priorities at the May 11 forum. They included a range of issues, including pandemic-related learning loss, a staffing shortage, board transparency, preparing students for college and careers after graduation, opposing critical race theory and advocating for parental rights.
Democrat Sabrina Coone-Godfrey is another parent running for an at-large school board seat. A long-time volunteer in the school district, Coone-Godfrey said she thinks it's time to move past focusing on the decisions made during the pandemic.
"We have folks running that are still very stuck on the pandemic train. We've got to move past that. We have so many other issues in our district," she said, adding that focusing on teacher recruitment and retention would be one of her first priorities if elected.
Politics seep into school board races
The North Carolina Democratic and Republican parties are paying a lot of attention to school board races this year.
Republicans hope education could become a winning issue for the party in races up and down the ballot, following in the steps of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who was elected last year after making parental choice a centerpiece of his campaign.
"Education is a huge focus for us at every level," said North Carolina GOP Chairman Michael Whatley.
He's seeing new Republican candidates run for school boards in urban areas that are traditionally blue, as well as in Republican counties where Democrats currently have control of the school board.
"The pandemic was eye-opening for a lot of parents who got to see what exactly the classroom agenda was while their kids were learning online at home," Whatley said.
But pandemic issues aren't the only ones being raised, especially now that kids are back in school and mask mandates have been lifted. Like in other places across the country, controversial topics around how gender- and race-related curriculum is taught in schools -- as well as what related books are available and assigned to students -- are also popping up at school board meetings.
Earlier this year, the North Carolina Values Coalition, a Christian non-profit, sponsored two school board "boot camps" attended by more than 80 local candidates. The events were aimed at training school board candidates on how to run a campaign as well as how to "combat harmful curriculum content," citing gender theory; critical race theory; social emotional learning; and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in public schools, according to the group's website.
"What we've seen this year are parents stepping up to run for school boards because they realize that if they don't, schools will continue the indoctrination of their children," said Tami Fitzgerald, North Carolina Values Coalition's executive director.
North Carolina Democratic Party chair Bobbie Richardson said her party is trying to keep politics out of school board races.
"While Republicans attempt to inject politics into the classroom, North Carolina Democrats will continue to fight for the best education possible for our students," said Richardson.
"Democratic candidates running for school board across the state understand that we need everyone to work together -- parents, teachers and administrators -- to create safe, healthy and inspiring schools where our students can reach their fullest potential," she added.
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