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Public Speaks Out Against Partisan School Board Elections
Supporting Commissioners remain silent
April 4, 2023

amlico County Commissioners met for the first of their two monthly meetings on Monday night, April 3. Usually held in the smaller Patsy Sadler room, the crowd expected wouldn’t fit. The meeting was moved upstairs to the larger courtroom.

Other than the seven elected Commissioners, various clerks, lawyers, County Manager Tim Buck, and the scheduled presenters on the agenda, just over 100 citizens of Pamlico County (with a handful from neighboring Craven County) were in the audience. They were there to give the Board their opinions on the passage of a resolution to make Pamlico County School Board elections partisan.

During the meeting, it became clear the majority of the audience, and all of the speakers, did not support the resolution. Many said the resolution “was kind of slid under the table” as one speaker put it.

It also came to light that the Pamlico County Board of Education did not know about the resolution until after the fact, and that the resolution may have been misrepresented to the General Assembly as a unanimous vote from the Board of Commissioners.

A Brief History
The resolution was passed in November of 2022, with a vote of 4-3 in favor of the resolution. Commissioners Missy Baskervill, Kari Forrest, Candy Bohmert, and Doug Brinson voted in favor. Commissioners Edward Riggs, Jr, Pat Prescott, and Carl Ollison voted against it.

The passing of the resolution had set in motion a North Carolina House Bill, sponsored by Representative Keith Kidwell, that when passed, sent the Bill to the Senate. It now sits in the North Carolina Senate, and is sponsored by Senator Norm Sanderson.

The Bill has already passed the first reading and goes before the Senate Tuesday, April 4, 2023 (today).

Doug Pearsall stands at the podium during the County Commissioners meeting, explaining the element of surprise.
The Rules for Presenters
At 7p, Monday evening, Commissioner Edward Riggs, Jr. welcomed everyone and laid the ground rules for the presentations. He asked for no talking, no clapping, and no booing, saying, “We’re all neighbors.”

The meeting opened with a prayer followed by the Pledge of Allegiance.

Two presentations were on the evening’s agenda: the first from Daniel Simpson of the Pamlico County Cooperative Extension about their activities in the County during the year.

The second presentation was from Doug Pearsall of the Pamlico County chapter of the NAACP. Presenters were given a maximum of 15 minutes to speak.

Presentation by Doug Pearsall of the NAACP
“We have come because we feel if this bill is passed, it will impact the lives of our children for the rest of their lives,” said Pearsall in his opening statement.

He said parents and residents had not heard about the resolution in a timely manner. “Every parent in Pamlico County should be heard.” Pearsall not only addressed the Board, but also turned to the crowd several times, indicating the gathered crowd was also in opposition to the bill.

Doug Pearsall of the NAACP speaks to the Board of Commissioners in the Pamlico County Courthouse. In front of him are Commissioners Edward Riggs Jr, Doug Brinson, Pat Prescott, and Carl Ollison. Riggs, Prescott, and Ollison voted against the resolution.

“We are serious about this because this is not right. What was done, it was passed through. It was undercut and we did not have a chance to even think about it before it was gone. It was done in November. We heard about it in March. So we are here tonight to let you know that we are not satisfied. It has also forced us to believe that we have lost the trust of our Board of Commissioners and we don’t wanna do that.”

At one point, he spoke directly to the Board asking, “Who recommended this bill?” The Board was silent.

He asked again, louder the second time. And again, there was no answer from the Commissioners sitting in front of him.

“Why wasn’t this announced before being passed?” he asked. The Board did not respond.

“We need you to ask for it [the bill] to come back to Pamlico. Revisit it, and let us have a voice,” he told the Board. “But no, this bill was – I’m gonna tell you, nobody knew about it. Caught us by surprise. Blindsided. What I was taught in combat is the element of surprise was the best attack to take on everybody. And that’s what y’all did. Element of of surprise.”

Pearsall concluded with, “Please let us know that you all will treat us right. You’re going to make sure this bill is not passed and that our school in Pamlico County will not become a partisan school.”

Despite Commissioner Riggs’ warning not to make noise during speakers’ time, Many in the crowd did clap for Pearsall. Those who did not agree with Pearsall could also be heard speaking to one another in the audience.

Public Comments
Fifteen speakers signed up for public comments. They were granted three minutes each to speak, though some ran over without being called for time.

After the designated time legally required for public comments passed, Commissioners voted unanimously to continue until all listed speakers had finished.

By 8p, ten speakers had delivered their remarks. The remaining five removed themselves from the list.

None, including the Commissioners who voted for the resolution, defended or spoke in favor of the resolution. All speakers were against it.

Of those who spoke, two were from neighboring Craven County, there to report the results of having partisan school board elections in their own County. Craven County voted for partisan school board elections in 2021. The law took effect during the 2022 election cycle.

Doug Pearsall turns to the audience during his presentation.
The Speakers
First to speak was Anne Hilton. She said that in 2022, three candidates ran for Pamlico County’s at-large school board positions.

“Two were registered Republicans. One was a registered Democrat. The people elected one Democrat and one Republican. There didn’t appear to be any party line voting. People voted for the candidate, not the party,” she said. “The current Board of Education is comprised of seven elected officials, three registered Republicans, four registered Democrats.”

Hilton said she’d spoken with the Board, “and the response I got was that the Board works well together.” She requested Commissioners “reconsider your previous actions and …. support a nonpartisan Board that responds to the populace and not a particular political party.”

Vanessa Cole spoke next, identifying herself as a minister.

She asked Commissioners, “Why in the height of a political climate would you want to do this and take away our choice to choose who’s the best person in Pamlico County?”

Cole held up several signed papers. She had gone door to door talking with residents, had organized a community day, and obtained a signed petition rejecting the resolution. These were County citizens across the political spectrum, she told the Board.

“There’s already enough going on. We see this in the newspapers, about how we’re number one in drugs, but nothing was said about this [the partisan school board resolution]. We see folks getting raises in the county, but we can’t even get a Boys and Girls Club for our kids.”

She ended, saying “the silence speaks the loudest for the three to four votes.” Cole handed Commissioner Riggs copies of her petition.

Michael Schachter of Craven County was next to speak.

He described three outcomes of partisan school board elections, as experienced in Craven County.

“Firstly, the claim that it would give voters more information was not true. In fact, voters had less information and many voted just for their team – the blue or the red – and didn’t check the candidate’s background or their views on educational issues, which was a shame.”

He said it was far more difficult to register for the ballot as an unaffiliated voter, “one of the fastest growing parts of the electorate.”

And, “some of those elected to the board were there not because of their interests in educating our students, but instead they saw this as a stepping stone to higher office.”

He said the bill resulting from the resolution “was strictly political, with no educational value.”

Lucas Seijo, an organizer with Democracy North Carolina spoke, identifying himself as a product of a non-partisan public school system.

“County Boards of Education are becoming a battleground for the political heart of North Carolina. Pamlico County is no exception to this and is in fact one of many counties currently facing similar legislation within the General Assembly, all of which are facing a future of contentious and hyper-partisan elections for Board of Education members.”

Seijo said that the non-partisan model “is working perfectly fine. In 2022, Pamlico County had graduation rates for historically marginalized in oppressed communities that were higher or on par with other counties across the state. In fact, there was a 95% and 93% graduation rate for Black and Hispanic students.”

He said Pamlico County’s legislators had professed unanimous support for the resolution and the advancing Bill. “Perhaps most confusing is the fact that at all levels of government that this bill has gone through, it has been stated that there was unanimous support for it within the County and on this Board itself. Yet we stand here tonight with an obvious distaste for this change.”

Realizing there was little the Board could do with the Bill so far along in the Senate, Seijo said there were still small things they could do, and cautioned them against making moves like this one in the future.

Next to speak was Bill Hines.

Hines referred to an article he’d read in The Observer newspaper about a long term Charlotte Board of Education Member dealing with partisan school board elections. The Board Member had said, “Before this [partisan school board elections] happened, there was no concern at all about politics. It was only about the quality of education for the children in the county and how they grew into adulthood and what they carried with them from their school system.”

Hines asked Commissioners to have an open discussion that evening, in front of the audience, about “what you discussed that night and inform us of what your thinking was that caused that proposal. Then you’re doing it in front of your county population, and not under the table.”

Diane Lemieux spoke next. She is a member of the Progressive Caucus of the NC Democratic Party.

She explained voters often vote party line, not seeking to understand a candidate’s background or qualifications. Lemieux continued, “41 school districts in North Carolina currently elected their Board of Education members in partisan races. This is hardly a justification. Even though the amount of partisan boards have tripled in the last 10 years, 63% are still nonpartisan.”

Lemieux stated Representative Keith Kidwell, in his testimony about the Bill to the General Assembly, “deliberately misrepresented Pamlico County in his statements” saying the Pamlico County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted for the resolution.

Additionally, opening the door to partisan school board elections would allow political PACs to “contribute thousands of dollars to candidates. Ambitious politicians will use their [school board] positions as stepping stones to run for higher office.”

She also addressed the notice on the agenda in November, and the lack of notice elsewhere. “A resolution on your agenda was hardly a robust effort to gain community input. Given that most residents do not see the agenda, if they had seen it and attended the meeting, they would not have been allowed to speak; as you have decided not to hear public comments at your second meetings.”

Lemiuex ended asking them to withdraw support for the Bill.

Pamlico County Commissioners Missy Baskervill, Kari Forrest, and Candy Bohmert. All voted for the resolution to make the school board elections partisan.

Mel Hudson followed. Hudson is from Craven County, and a member of the non-partisan group Advocates for Public Schools in Craven County.

She also shared what was happening in Craven County Schools after partisan elections. “Just last month, our school board spent valuable time on a political resolution to support North Carolina Senate Bill 49, and because of pressure to implement one group’s education agenda, there have been times during our meetings when it feels like our educators are under attack. All this has done little to solve our system’s most pressing need, which is the need for our schools to be fully staffed.”

Craven is losing teachers to Pamlico County, she said, because “why work in Craven and worry?”

Hudson, like Schachter before her, spoke to the difficulty in non-affiliated candidates getting on the ballot.

“We had one nonpartisan candidate try to gather signatures and then drop out because it was too time consuming. The candidate would knock on the door. People would be home – but they wouldn’t answer. Partisan elections keep quality non-affiliated candidates from running. From a Craven County perspective, having a partisan school board makes the hard work of running a school system more complicated.”

She asked Commissioners to find a way to keep the school board non-partisan.

John McCotter, member of the Pamlico County Board of Education spoke at the request of John Prescott, the Chairman of the Pamlico Board of Education. He reported that the Board had never been notified of the resolution to make their election process partisan.

John McCotter spoke next. He is a member of the Pamlico County Board of Education, and said his Board had not known, or been notified, of the original resolution.

Board of Education Chairman, John Prescott, asked McCotter to attend the meeting as the Chairman was in a meeting.

“We represent the children of Pamlico County – not in a partisan fashion. And we do not wish to have partisan politics interjected into the school system.”

McCotter asked that a review of the proposal be put on the next agenda, where the Board of Education could provide input.

Vickie Moseley Jones, education chair for the Pamlico Chapter of the NAACP was next.

Jones was born and educated in Pamlico County. She called several Commissioners and reported only two returned the call.

“I’m not sure why the others did not, but that’s okay,” she said. “You know, one said that they voted on behalf of parents who vote, and I know a lot of parents who vote that don’t feel this way, and I just think that it’s unfair that you didn’t at least give us the opportunity to voice our concern.”

Jones said it wasn’t fair to the children. “Aren’t our children going through enough? Just trying to make it from day to day with the pandemic, trying to readjust back into the school system. Now we’re gonna put politics into it? It’s not fair for the children. Let’s reconsider. Forget about our agendas, our political agendas.”

Carinna Smith is the mother of two teenagers educated in the Pamlico County School system. She spoke next.

“Having a partisan school board will shrink the representation of people of color even more than it is now. I’m scared that the issues of the minority students will be missed or unaddressed. If you really want to help the children here, then give them something to do after school. Give them somewhere to work so that we don’t have to go to Craven to find a job.”

Smith moved to Pamlico County in 2011. She said that since that time, there had been a recreation park in the works – but it had never materialized. The money raised for it, she said, had gone to the jail.

“Here we are again, talking about the kids and their needs. I don’t think that they are concerned about what political party you are from.”

Smith also asked some familiar questions: “Why did this come up? What good is it going to do?”

Next to speak was Kathryn Garcia.

Garcia asked again: “Why has this issue even come up? Why have our representatives voted without input from the voters who care deeply about our children? I was surprised to hear Mr. McCotter come up and say that the Board of Education doesn’t even want this. Did you not talk to them as well?”

She asked that the school boards stay non-partisan, and not bring politics into the equation.

Vicki Moseley Jones, member of the NAACP, parent and resident of Pamlico County. She said only two of the board members she called returned her calls.

John Philips was the last to speak during public comments.

“I don’t want to know the name of one of the Commissioners,” he said, “I want to know the original person who wanted to put [the resolution] on there.”

Philips continued and instead of asking the Board to reconsider, he offered a different suggestion.

“My message to the Commissioners is: introduce a [resolution]. Pass it. Ask our Senator to put a hold on it. I don’t want to hear that it’s never been done. Do it. If you get sued, we’ll figure it out. Stop it. Then if you wanna resurrect this, then bring the community in, ‘cause we need to be heard.”

Philips said he had read that the direction to switch to partisan school boards was coming from a Republican controlled North Carolina General Assembly. “So I’m assuming that the pressure was put on you guys, ‘cause I don’t think this ordinance just fell out of the sky.”

He quoted Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers: “Attacks on public education are not new. The difference today is that the attacks are intended to destroy it.”

To illustrate his point, Philips ended his time with a direction to Commissioners to look at NC House Bill 187, titled the Equality in Education Act. “It describes how they limit what you teach.”

(The Bill puts restrictions on how topics of race, sex, gender, and the rule of law relating to those, is taught in schools.)

At 8p, Commissioner Riggs asked how many were left to speak. The reply was that there were 5 people left on the list, but they had withdrawn their names.

Riggs called a 3 minute break.

After Public Comments
During the break, some attendees milled about, some left, and others spoke with Commissioners.

When the meeting returned to session, about two-thirds of the audience had departed. Commissioners handled the rest of the agenda with little discussion, either voting for measures as they appeared on the agenda or tabling them until their next meeting.

Riggs asked if there were any Commissioner comments or if Commissioners would like to talk about their meeting assignments. All Commissioners spoke, but only Commissioner Carl Ollison referenced the evening’s hot button topic.

“First, I’d like to apologize to the public for dropping the ball on this Senate Bill 286. I didn’t realize the impact of what it actually stood for. It was during hunting season; I was distracted.”

Ollison asked the County lawyer, David Baxter, if a public hearing was needed for that particular resolution. Baxter said it was not.

“As I was on the losing side of that vote,” said Ollison, “I can’t ask that Bill to be rescinded. But I can ask this Board to entertain a Public Hearing even after it’s gone, and that’s what I’d like.”

No other comments were made on the issue of partisan school board elections. No Commissioners agreed or disagreed with Ollison’s request, or took up the several suggestions from the crowd to do something about the matter that evening.

The Board then adjourned to go into a closed session relating to other matters.

Related Information
The November 21, 2022 Agenda with the Original Resolution Notice
Pamlico County Board of Commissioners April 3 Agenda
House Bill 179 Introduced / Sponsored by Representative Keith Kidwell
Senate Bill 286 Introduced / Sponsored by Senator Norm Sanderson
Letters to the Editor: Partisan School Board Elections

Posted Tuesday April 4, 2023 by Allison DeWeese

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