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Heading to the polls in NC? Don't forget your school board homework

For the first time, Asheville voters will see Asheville City school board candidates on their ballot. In September, candidates shared their views during a forum.
Buncombe County Democratic Party
For the first time, Asheville voters will see Asheville City school board candidates on their ballot. In September, candidates shared their views during a forum.

There is a lot on the ballot this midterm  election, including for the first time in Asheville candidates running for a spot on the Ashville City school board. As BPR’s Helen Chickering reports,this often overlooked down ballot race has a bigger impact on communities than many people realize.

Heather Koons will never forget one of her first voting experiences. She was a young voter on her way to the polls.

“I just wasn't sure who to vote for, and I had been driving down a major thoroughfare uh frequently and there were a lot of signs for one particular person,“ Koons recalled. “So, I just voted for that person - and I lived to regret it and I have never done that again! I do my homework on the elections.”

That “do your homework” message is one she been sharing a lot recently. Koons is the communications director for Public Schools First NC, a nonprofit nonpartisan advocacy organization. During this midterm election she’s laser focused on the importance of school board races.

For the first time, all 115 school districts in North Carolina will elect school board members. Asheville City was one of the last districts in the state to make the shift from appointed to elected board members.  Koons says whether you have a student in a school or not, these are races every voter should pay attention to.

“Strong public schools are vital to the health of a community,” said Koons. "The business community benefits greatly when there are healthy, strong public schools, because companies are more willing to move to the area, because they know their employees will be able to find good educational opportunities for their children. You want to draw young families with kids into a community and having a healthy public school systems do that.”

Each school board has its own local legislation that determines how many members are on a board, and whether the elections are partisan. Forty-three of the state’s 115 school district elections hold partisan elections, including seven in the BPR listening area: Madison, Rutherford, Transylvania, Clay, Cherokee, Graham and Swain.

Leanne Winner is the executive director of the North Carolina School Board Association and says the position comes with big responsibilities.

“School boards have two primary roles,” said Winner. “One is, they are the policy-making body for the school district. They make the policies and then charge the superintendent and the staff with executing those policies.”

Everything from COVID-19 policies to curriculum to books in the classroom.

“And then they also have judicial role," says Winner. "They act as a body for hearings, whether that be personnel issues, student issues, those types of things.”

Just as important as what they can do, is what school boards can’t do says Heather Koons, who points out that school boards don’t have taxing authority. That means they can’t raise money for the schools, they need to go to the county commissioners.

“They need to go to the county commissioners, another very important election for schools. County commissioners have taxing authority and they set the budget and part of the county budget is funding education in the schools. So, the school systems and the school boards need to have a good productive working relationship with county commissioners and really advocate for the funding that's needed for their schools. So, you really want to elect people who strongly support public schools and can make that case to the public, and to the commissioners. These are very important races.”

Both Koons and Winner encourage voters to do their homework before heading to the polls and recommend checking out candidate websites along with Q&A features often posted by local media and attending or watching recorded candidate forums.

Not on that list of recommendations - picking candidates based on lawn signs on the way to the polls.

You can find out more about the role of school boards in North Carolina here.

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.
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