School race is no place for a party

The Observer editorial board

Partisan school board races would put unaffiliated candidates at a disadvantage.
Partisan school board races would put unaffiliated candidates at a disadvantage. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

It’s an unfortunate reality of politics that a “D” or an “R” after a candidate’s name means more than it should on election day. That’s partly because some voters don’t bother to do much research before casting their ballots. It’s also because some are beholden to political parties, regardless of the candidates who carry their banners.

That’s why Republicans in North Carolina and across the country are pushing legislation that would make school board elections partisan races. A bill in the N.C. House, sponsored by Republican George Cleveland of Jacksonville, would do that for all of North Carolina. Two other House bills would mandate partisan school board races for just three N.C. counties. (Mecklenburg isn’t one.)

Republicans say it’s all about transparency. Including a candidate’s party affiliation gives voters a better idea, they say, of what principles candidates would bring to spending decisions and other issues. That’s somewhat true, but a D or an R is a poor way to evaluate a candidate. After all, moderates in each party might be closer in philosophy to each other than to the extremes of their own parties.

Having that “R” on the ballot, however, would be good for N.C. Republicans. In the state’s many conservative counties, it would provide a surer path to victory. Plus, it would give the party more control over who runs for elections – and more influence should that candidate win.

But partisan school board elections could be costly in several ways. If the partisan races require primaries, as N.C. law currently prescribes, they could bring counties additonal expenses, albeit small. That’s what happened with partisan elections for the Lee County Board of Education and city of Sanford, which spent an additonal $35,000 last election. Democrat Brad Salmon, who filed a bill Wednesday to repeal partisan elections, told the (Raleigh) News & Observer that Democrats and Republicans in his county felt they were unnecessary. Last fall, Salmon defeated Republican Mike Stone, who had pushed the initial partisan switch.

More significantly, partisan school board elections place an unnecessary burden on unaffiliated candidates, who are forced to choose a party if they want a chance to win a school board race. If they don’t, they’ll run without the support of local party organizations, plus they’ll lose those many voters who pick candidates based on party.

Some potential candidates wouldn’t even be allowed to consider school board races. The Hatch Act of 1939 prohibits employees receiving salaries that include federal money from running for office in partisan elections. That includes federal employees and some state employees, as well as teachers and police officers. The Department of Defense has similar restrictions for members of the military, active duty or not.

Lawmakers shouldn’t be eliminating candidates before races even begin. We need the best local leaders we can find to navigate critical education issues, and those candidates should get our votes for the positions they have on issues, not because of a “D” or “R” after their name.

That’s not the case with most elections in North Carolina, but it still is for our boards of education. It should remain that way.