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As voters elect school boards in Swain, Macon and Haywood Counties, some candidates say they don’t want politics in schools

Lilly Knoepp/BPR News

School board races have become politicized in recent years, from opposition to COVID policies to pressure to ban certain books. Smoky Mountain News reporter Hannah McLeod has been reporting on school board races in three local counties: Swain, Macon and Haywood. COVID-19 policies and book banning are just two examples of how school board positions have become more politized in recent years.

McLeod talked with twelve candidates Swain, Macon and Haywood Counties. (Jackson County elected its new schoolboard members during the primary. )

Out of those three races Macon and Haywood are nonpartisan – that means that candidates don’t identify with a party while Swain is partisan. McLeod says some candidates believe the boards are too politicized while others wished all candidates were affiliated with a party.

McLeod point to one Macon County candidate, Billy Handly, who said that school boards are already partisan in nature so a spot on the school board should be a partisan issue.

She says several of the Swain candidates said they wished the board was non-partisan and that religious issues, LGBTQ+ issues and critical race theory don’t have any place in schools.

However, at the same time many of the candidates are running on a platform of being guided by Conservative Christian values.

McLeod has reported on controversial issues with Haywood County Schools in the past such as when the Confederate flag was banned at school events in 2021 and the book “Dear Martin” was pulled from a Tuscola High School classroom.

McLeod says these issues didn’t come up during candidate interviews.

“I think this is largely about the effort to keep politics out of schools,” said McLeod. “These issues do show us that political issues do come before school boards though and the candidates that do get elected will be the ones making those decisions.”

School safety and the need for effective technology for learning were the top overarching issues for most candidates, McLeod explained.

While the main issues impacting Western North Carolina schools do overlap, each county also has its own specific needs:

  • In Macon County, the plan for a new high school and a corresponding tax increase were top of mind. Read more on the candidates here.
  • In Swain County, the need for new staff and staff retention were key issues. Read more on the candidates here.
  • In Haywood County, the nine-person board is made up of members who have been a part of the board for about 20 years. Out of three incumbent races only one is contested.  The board is guaranteed a new member from the Crabtree District. Brooke Haynes and Marla Morris are competing for the seat, ensuring that next year there will be one woman on what is currently an all-male board.  Read more on the candidates here. 

Early voting starts on October 20th and Election Day is November 8th. Here's how to vote.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.