Voters in Wake County, N.C. have shifted political power on the local school board, ending a Republican majority backed by leading conservative benefactor Art Pope that worked to end the system's nationally recognized desegregation policy.
In the Nov. 8 runoff race that pitted incumbent Democrat Kevin Hill, a lifelong educator, against Republican Heather Losurdo, a stay-at-home mom and Tea Party activist, Hill won with just over 52% of the vote in the strongly Republican district. The runoff followed the Oct. 11 general election for the school board in which Democrats won outright four of the five seats that were up for grabs on the nine-member board, but in which Hill narrowly missed the 50% he needed to avoid a rematch with Losurdo, who led a field of three challengers.
It's unlikely that the board will reinstate the assignment policy scrapped by the GOP majority -- a policy that aimed to limit the number of children receiving free or reduced-price lunch in any one school through a combination of busing and magnet school programs. However, the Democrats on the board have expressed greater willingness to take steps to avoid high-poverty and racially-isolated schools than the Republicans, who have criticized such efforts as a "quota system."
The election results were cheered by Rev. William Barber, president of the N.C. NAACP, which filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights over the Republican majority's actions. That investigation is ongoing.
"The voices of parents, grandparents, teachers, students and community members rejected candidates who support regressive public policy that leads to resegregation of our public schools," Barber said in a statement. "Their commitment speaks clearly to the rest of North Carolina, but also to the national debate over public education reform, which must have diversity and resources at the center."
The Democratic resurgence was a reaction to the 2009 election, when Republicans gained control of the board in a strategy masterminded by Pope (in photo), a discount-retail mogul and a director of Americans for Prosperity, a corporate advocacy group founded and funded by the brothers behind the Koch Industries oil and chemical conglomerate. Like the Kochs, Pope has used his family's fortune to support a range of conservative causes, including school privatization.
Americans for Prosperity's North Carolina chapter was active in the 2009 school board race, carrying out voter education and volunteer work on behalf of Republican candidates. At the same time, Pope was the second-biggest contributor to the Republicans in that election, donating over $15,000 to the local party, which in turn spent most of the money on the school board race. A local GOP official acknowledged that Pope was the "architect" of the strategy to elect anti-diversity policy candidates.
Pope's money also played an important role in this year's hotly contested races. In the run-up to the October general election, Pope and his wife, Katherine, contributed $4,000 each -- the maximum allowed by law -- to three Republican candidates who wanted to end the diversity policy: challenger Donna Williams and current school board chair Ron Margiotta, both of whom lost, as well as Losurdo.
They then contributed another $4,000 each to Losurdo's runoff campaign. Last month, N.C. Board of Elections Director Gary Bartlett issued an opinion requested by the Northern Wake Republican Club finding that the runoff counts as a new election for campaign finance purposes.
In total, Losurdo raised more than $82,000 in campaign contributions, setting a new record for a Wake school board candidate, while Hill raised $42,000. But outside groups -- both conservative and liberal -- were also heavily involved, ratcheting up spending on the campaign to a mind-boggling $500,000.
One of the outside groups that was heavily involved in the election was Civitas Action, the political advocacy arm of the nonprofit Civitas Institute that is almost completely funded by Pope. The group characterized the staid Hill as a peace sign-flashing hippie stuck in the past. On the other side of the political spectrum, the independent groups Common Sense Matters and Progress NC hammered Losurdo for her Tea Party connections, a personal bankruptcy, exaggerating her responsibilities at a job servicing bank loans, and for a stint working in a New Orleans strip club, where Losurdo says she was just a cocktail waitress.
The new school board will be sworn in next month. Meanwhile, members of the accrediting organization for Wake County schools are scheduled to meet later this month with school officials and board members to review their actions to maintain accreditation. In response to a complaint filed by the NAACP last year, AdvancED investigated and placed the system under warning for what it called a lack of effective leadership and a "climate of uncertainty, suspicion and mistrust throughout the community."