The Alexander County Board of Commissioners held a public hearing at their meeting on Monday, April 12, on a resolution requesting partisan filing for the Alexander County Board of Education. After much public input and discussion, the board voted 3-2 in opposition of the resolution with Commissioners Larry Yoder, Jeff Peal, and Marty Pennell opposed and Commissioners Ronnie Reese and Josh Lail in favor.
Nine citizens expressed their opposition and three citizens spoke in favor of the resolution and NC House Bill 515, which was introduced by NC Representative Jeffrey Elmore just prior to the local bill filing deadline of April 8. The bill was on hold until the commissioners voted on the issue; therefore, without county support, HB 515 will no longer include Alexander County.
One of the speakers was Jack Simms, who is Chairman of the Alexander County Republican Party. Simms said there were numerous people who visited the Republican headquarters asking for information about Alexander County Board of Education candidates during the 2020 election and he had no information to share because it was a nonpartisan race. He said the local GOP Executive Committee met to discuss the issue and voted 10-1 in favor of changing the Board of Education election to partisan, which led to a request to add the resolution to the April 12 agenda of the Board of Commissioners.
“The county commissioners didn’t initiate this,” Simms stated.
Other speakers in the hearing were Rev. Sterling Howard and Helen Chestnut of the Alexander County NAACP chapter, retired educators Jane Maupin and Dr. Dianne Little, retired school principal Kathy Riddle, and Board of Education members Matt Cooksey, David Odom, and Brigette Rhyne and former Board of Education member Dale Clary, along with Kent Herman, long-time Soil & Water Board member, and Scott Hines, Alexander County Register of Deeds.
Odom and Little, speaking against the partisan push, perhaps best summed up the opposition’s concerns by saying school system problems, such as funding, go above party politics, noting the move would create partisan rancor in the school board. Little said the NC General Assembly has flipped over one-fourth of school board elections across the state from non-partisan to partisan elections in recent years.
Commissioners who voted against the resolution said they understood the concerns of those who spoke during the public hearing. They also expressed concern about the almost 8,000 unaffiliated voters in the county who would have to get 4 percent of their district to sign a petition to be able to run for a seat on the Board of Education. They also expressed concerns about the lack of candidates for school board seats, noting that making it partisan could make it even more difficult.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who used to be commissioners in this county and all are from the Republican party, and not one of them thought this was a good idea. I was really surprised that making this a partisan issue brought up this much discussion,” said Larry Yoder, Chairman of the Alexander County Board of Commissioners. “I really feel like nonpartisan is the way to go.”
Commissioners Reese and Lail said most everyone they spoke to were in favor of making the Board of Education race partisan, as adding political affiliation helps inform the voters about the candidates.
On Wednesday by phone, Rep. Elmore said a bill cannot be retracted. To stop HB 515, it has been referred to the Local Government Committee and he has asked the chair to place it on hold, so the bill will not be voted upon.
Voting, elections details
The Times contacted Alexander County Board of Elections Director Patrick Wike to ask about voter statistics in the county. He noted that as of January 1, 2021, Alexander County had 24,377 total registered voters. There are four School Districts in the county. School District 1 had 7,841 registered voters; District 2 had 6,488 voters; District 3 had 3,362 voters; and District 4 had 6,686 voters.
Also, as of January 1, the breakdown of registered voters by party included: Republican, 11,674; Unaffiliated, 7,711; Democratic, 4,882; and Libertarian, 110. This does not count a very small number of voters affiliated with the Green Party or Constitution Party.
Some school board elections in recent years have had only one candidate run in them. In 2020, only one candidate ran in each of the District 4 open seats; in 2018, only one candidate each ran in the District 1, District 2 (two seats), and District 4 elections; and in 2016, only one candidate ran in each of the District 1 and District 3 elections.
If the measure ever becomes law and changes the Alexander County Board of Education elections to partisan contests, Wike said that in order for an Unaffiliated person to become a candidate on the ballot for school board, the person must seek out 4 percent of registered voters in his or her school district to sign a petition for the person to become a candidate.