Party politics drifts down to school board racesBoth parties weigh in on nonpartisan race
In an election year marked by deep division on the future course of the country, it is not surprising that partisan politics has crept into nonpartisan races, including the local school board contests.
Both political parties in the county have listed a portion of the school board candidate slate on their promotional literature.
On the Republican Party bookmark being handed out to voters, nonpartisan races are included under the heading “conservative candidates.” The listing comes as a surprise to some candidates, who weren’t even aware the parties would become involved in the race.
On the Democratic side, advertising listing the 2012 Democratic candidates includes two out of three candidates in the Beaverdam district Larry Harbin and Rhonda Cole Schandevel, and three out of five candidates for the Waynesville district, Vergil Daughtery, James Harley Francis and Lynn Milner.
Tom Long is the only candidate in a contested race for the board of education listed on Republican literature, even though Martha “Ann” Barrett is also a Republican.
“When we put in for school board, it doesn’t ask for party affiliation,” said Barrett, who noted she was surprised about the party involvement. “I didn’t know anything about this.”
As an incumbent board member, Barrett said she can’t recall a single time when party affiliation has made a difference, adding that’s the way it should be.
“Nobody called to ask me one way or the other about anything,” she said of contact with political party leaders. “I registered as a Republican a long time ago. I may reregister as independent because I vote for a candidate based on what I believe to be their true feelings and things I see they do for the good. I never vote a straight ticket.”
Long, on the other hand, said several members of the conservative wing of the Republican Party encouraged him to run. Long, a self-described conservative on both social and financial issues, said he touched base with the Democratic party, as he knows there are conservatives in that party, too. He was told he was on “the other side,” he said.
His effort to connect to the Republican Party was more successful.
“When you’re running for office, as long as it is not some far, outside group, any kind of support you can get from an organization is welcomed,” Long said.
Rebecca Benhart, who along with Barrett, was not on either party’s promotional literature, said she had previously been registered as a Democrat before seeking the school board post, and even worked to elect Democratic candidates. Because the school board is a nonpartisan position, she changed her registration to “unaffiliated.”
“Then this comes out, and it is clearly partisan,” Benhart said. “They are saying vote for these Democrats.”
Janie Benson, chairman of the local Democratic Party, said the party literature is intended to inform voters which candidates are registered party members.
"After the primary election, Democrats support Democrats," Benson said, which is why Benhart isn't on party promotional literature.
"She did work for Obama, and it is really too bad (she couldn't be on the list.) I wish she had talked to us first," Benson said. "Frankly, I personally don't think the judicial races or the school board should be nonpartisan, but I understand the reason for it."
Karl Lang, who participated in the vetting process for the local Republican Party, said the county organization follows state party rules and only supports Republican candidates. The reason Long was listed on GOP literature and Barrett isn't is that a vetting process verified he was a conservative candidate. Barrett, on the other hand, didn’t reach out to the party to seek support, said Lang.
The vetting process involved not only questioning a candidate on his or her beliefs, but looking at their voting record and participation in government.
“Some haven’t even voted before, yet they are asking others to vote for them,” Lang said.
Bill Nolte, associate superintendent of schools for Haywood County, said it is unfortunate the school board races have become political.
"I have worked with very good school board members who happen to be Democrats and Republicans. Now that people are trying to make this a ‘party thing,’ our schools are being pushed and pulled along national party platforms,” Nolte said. “This is not what made us a good school system. Our success has grown out of people working for what is best for children, regardless of their party affiliation. Schools should be about teaching and learning, not political platforms."