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NC 'boot camps' prepare candidates for culture war's front lines: School board elections

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Jodie Valade / WFAE
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Advocates on the right and left say this year’s school board campaigns will be ground zero in America’s culture wars. The conservative North Carolina Values Coalition prepared people for that battle this week by holding training sessions for prospective school board candidates in Raleigh and Mooresville.

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the Raleigh-based group, says the issues that have led to heated protests at board meetings are fueling intense interest in running for office.

“Parents are upset about what their kids have been learning in school,” she said. “They’re upset about the mask mandates that still perpetuate around the state. And it just seems like there’s been a great awakening among parents.”

Reporters weren’t allowed into the “school board boot camps.” In an interview after Thursday’s session at Trinity Baptist Church in Mooresville Fitzgerald said attendance for the two sessions was about 200, with about 100 saying they plan to run. In the Charlotte area, she said Mecklenburg, Union and Iredell counties had strong participation.

Participants heard from current board members, including Union County school board Chair Melissa Merrell. The sessions dealt with challenging the way racism and gender issues are discussed in schools and the presence of what some call pornographic books available to students.

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Tami Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald said concerns have been building for several years.  

“Parents are upset about what their kids have been learning in school,” she said. “They’re upset about the mask mandates that still perpetuate around the state. And it just seems like there’s been a great awakening among parents.”

Reporters weren’t allowed into the “school board boot camps.” In an interview after Thursday’s session at Trinity Baptist Church in Mooresville Fitzgerald said attendance for the two sessions was about 200, with about 100 saying they plan to run. In the Charlotte area, she said Mecklenburg, Union and Iredell counties had strong participation.

Participants heard from current board members, including Union County school board Chair Melissa Merrell. The sessions dealt with challenging the way racism and gender issues are discussed in schools and the presence of what some call pornographic books available to students.

Fitzgerald said concerns have been building for several years.

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Credit NCValues.Org
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Pitch for the North Carolina Values Coalition's training for school board campaigns.

“A lot of the people who have been calling NC Values Coalition over the last four or five years are concerned about critical race theory. They are concerned about gender ideology in the schools. They’re concerned about pornographic books that are being kept in the libraries,” she said.

Part of a national trend

The forum was co-sponsored by the Family Research Council’s political action group, which is based in Washington, D.C. The council has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center based on what the law center calls anti-LGBTQ positions.

Fitzgerald said her group partnered with the council because it had hosted a national school board boot camp this summer.

The North Carolina sessions echo themes that have been spreading through Republican circles for months, such as the value of using so-called critical race theory as a political rallying cry. Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon used his War Room podcast in May to urge parents to take over school boards and “throw the bums out.”

“If they’re going to sit there and approve critical race theory and all this nonsense, boom! You’re gone!” Bannon said. “We’re going to show up. We’re going to vote you out. Boom. Next! And we’re going to put moms in there.”

In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governorship in November with a campaign that focused heavily on parent rights and public education. He opposed teaching critical race theory and requiring children to wear masks in schools.

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Janice D. Robinson

Red Wine & Blue is a national group of suburban women who organized to counter that kind of approach. Janet Robinson, the group’s North Carolina program director, says right-wing groups are using scare tactics.

“So they’re going to use the latest bogeyman — which they’ve made CRT a bogeyman, they’ve made the issues around the LGBT community a bogeyman — to get people to vote for their candidates,” Robinson said. “So the school board is going to be ground zero.”

A big election year

Most of North Carolina’s 115 school districts are holding elections this year — including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which normally holds elections in odd-numbered years. But delayed 2020 Census data pushed back the election so the board could redraw voting districts based on the latest population counts.

The off-year CMS elections, which coincide with municipal races, traditionally draw turnout well below 20%. But this year’s CMS board elections, along with those in Cabarrus, Catawba, Gaston, Iredell-Statesville, Lincoln and Union counties, will be on the ballot with state and national races that draw more interest.

Red Wine & Blue’s Robinson is a Democratic political consultant from Charlotte. She says she hasn’t heard of any similar school board training sessions organized by left-leaning groups but hopes to see some.

“We are going to be supporting and we are encouraging the women in our organization and our groups in our network to run for school board,” she said.

The impact of candidate recruitment efforts and school board controversy won’t be clear until filing for school board seats ends later this year.

Copyright 2022 WFAE.  For more go to WFAE.org

Ann Doss Helms covers education for WFAE. She was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for 32 years, including 16 years on the education beat. She has repeatedly won first place in education reporting from the North Carolina Press Association and won the 2015 Associated Press Senator Sam Open Government Award for reporting on charter school salaries.