School board takes a stand against HB 265

By Shelby Harrell | Mar 15, 2017
Photo by: Shelby Harrell School board attorney Pat Smathers addressed the Haywood County Board of Education on Monday night as a private citizen and spoke out about his concerns with HB 265.

Last week, members of the Haywood County Board of Education were left shocked and scratching their heads after learning that House Bill 265, a local bill co-sponsored by Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Yancey, had been introduced.

If passed, HB 265 could make Haywood one of a handful of counties in the state where school board members would run on a partisan ticket. The other counties in the region affected by HB 265 include Madison and Yancey.

School leaders were concerned about the change, as well as the fact that Presnell introduced the bill without even having the courtesy to contact any of the elected school board leaders in her district.

Pat Smathers, who has been the school board’s attorney for 32 years, was especially concerned about the proposed measure and took an unprecedented action at Monday's board meeting.

When the board was discussing a proposed resolution opposing the measure, Smathers stepped out of his role at attorney and addressed the board as a private citizen.

“I strongly oppose that bill,” Smathers said. “In the mid-1960s, our local political leaders in the community, our state legislative leaders, in both the N.C. House and Senate, had the great wisdom to make the election for school board members in Haywood County a nonpartisan race. Partisan political ideology should not be a factor in making education decisions at the local government level. I feel very strongly about that.”

Smathers said that during his time as the school board attorney, he had worked with school board members that always consisted of a mixture Republican, Democrats and independents.

“Decisions on the local level for our students, our teachers, our staff, should be made on other factors than partisan politics,” Smathers said. “That is why this school system is now rated in the top 10 percent of schools of the state North Carolina. I think that is a critical reason why.”

Smathers also reminded the board members that they were not elected because of their  political persuasion — but rather based on their honesty, commitment, understanding of issues, character, ability to work hard, listen to people, belief that you can expand the education of young people in this county, and making the county better place.

“I’m not sure why this bill was introduced,” Smathers said. “There is no problem in Haywood County in electing of our school board members. ... We don’t need the dysfunction and chaos that’s going on in Washington and Raleigh today to come to this county and affect the education of these children in this county."

Smathers said he planned to write a letter to Presnell, Rep. Mike Clampitt and Sen. Jim Davis asking them to vote against the bill, and he encouraged everyone at the meeting to do the same.

“This is not good for Haywood County,” he added. “I’m convinced that if we open up our elections to partisan politics, we will drive a dagger into the heart of the community support and cohesion that this board has.”

Clampitt, (R-Swain) said Swain County has partisan races and the system works fine.

"I looked at that bill and I’ll probably support it," Clampitt said. "I've got about 75 bills I'm working on as far as cosponsoring, so I plead a little ignorant on this. I'd like to talk to school board, but it appears the current trend is to identify parties."

Clampitt, who represents the western portion of Haywood, said Presnell didn't consult with him before adding Haywood to the bill making a total of six school board races partisan, or ask if he wanted to cosponsor it.

Davis, (R-Franklin), said he hasn't read the bill yet so could not comment on it.

"It seems to me that in smaller communities, the voters already know the party affiliation of candidates," Davis said in an email response. "I would be in favor of putting such a proposal before the voters and let them decide. It is true that unless the local delegation is in favor of a local bill, the potential for passage is greatly diminished."

During a school board work session last week, Chairman Chuck Francis recommended the board draft a resolution opposing HB 265. Monday night the board voted unanimously to support a resolution opposing Presnell's bill.

“I feel a little disappointed that no one would talk to this county or this board or anybody — they haven’t even asked what this county would be in favor of,” said board member Jimmy Rogers.  “The best interest of children in this county, that’s what we’re here for. We’re not for a party. We’re here for these children.”

Chairman Francis said that he had contacted board chairs in Yancey and Madison counties, and neither of them nor their board members had been contacted or asked about HB 265. Though Yancey County Schools had discussed the issue of a partisan board in the past, Francis said their consensus had been against it.

“When I ran  for the Board of Education, I ran for the kids,” said board member Larry Henson. “I think that’s what we all should be here for. It should be all about the kids, that’s why I’m totally against this.

“I agree, it’s not about the party. It’s about the kids,” added board member Anne Barrett.

Board member Jim Harley Francis said in his five years serving on the board, he had never seen politics come into play with the school board.

“It’s all about what’s best for our kids, teachers, and what’s best for the county,” Harley Francis said. “I think we need to stick with that.”

“When they consolidated the school system, they were Democrats and Republicans — if they wanted to make it a partisan they would have done it then,” said board member Steven Kirkpatrick. “They had a foresight that it’s for the kids not about who’s Democrat or Republican.”

Francis said he hopes the resolution against HB 265 would be sent out by the end of this week.