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School Board pushes back on partisan elections

Henderson County School Board members want to meet with the county’s legislators to find out their position on making School Board elections partisan and seek input in drafting legislation if the lawmakers support the idea.

School Board Chair Blair Craven introduced the topic on Monday, saying he had asked that it be added to the agenda.

“The problem that I had with it is I initially found out is by WLOS giving me a call,” he said. “I never had a commissioner reach out to me or ask my opinion — not that they cared — or wanted to follow up with me on why this was happening, how it would affect people, what their thoughts were.

“And so once I received that call, I called the five board members and really told them what I thought, which was essentially I don't think that it should have been a consent agenda item, which is just approved without any anybody being able to voice their support or being against it.”

Under pressure from constituents, commissioners pulled the resolution from the consent agenda and took it up at their next meeting, passing it in a 5-0 vote. It’s now in the hands of the county’s two House members and senator, all Republicans.

Craven, a former Republican who is now registered as unaffiliated, said he had numerous questions — all still unanswered.

“Does this mean that there's a primary now for the Board of Education, which I would assume that there is. Nobody really had the answer for that," he said. "And also as an independent voter, unaffiliated voter does that mean now that anybody that decides to run unaffiliated would have to then receive signatures to be able to be put on the ballot?”

“It's not just throwing a rock in the water and saying you have an R or D or I by your name,” he said. “It’s is the ripple effects that occurs from it, and there are a lot of ripples from that.”

In an interview before the Feb. 6 Board of Commissioners meeting, county Elections Director Karen Hebb said making the School Board elections partisan would mean a primary in either party if more candidates filed than the number of seats open. Unaffiliated candidates, she said, would need to collect 3,400 signatures from voters in order to be on the general election ballot.

Of the three winners of the 2022 election — all Republicans endorsed on palm cards handed out by volunteers — only Jay Egolf spoke.

“One thing I wish would have gone differently is the School Board would have been at least notified” of the resolution, he said. “The two boards should play with each other. Everything should be open.”

The petition requirement for unaffiliated voters, he said, would be burdensome.

“There are very good people that are unaffiliated, and I would not want to limit — like you, Mr. Craven — I would not want to make it harder for you to run for this position. I just don't want us to limit the people that could run for this board because this is about our kids. It's not about politics.”

Stacey Caskey, the only registered Democrat on the School Board, noted that commissioners cited transparency when they voted to seek the change.

“One of the concerns I have is that in the last three election cycles, we’ve had people who haven't bothered to fill out candidate questionnaires,” she said. “We've had people who haven't filled out the Vote411 (survey), which is nonpartisan. We've had people not show up to forums. We've had people not show up to meet-and-greets. If you want to be transparent I think that you need to be filling out these things.

“And what worries me is that if people are voting just based on R, D, I, U — whatever letters you want to use — I think it's, first of all, giving people the right to be lazy. I think everybody should read about every candidate — what you hate about them, what you love about them, what lines up with your ideals.”

During public comment time, schoolteacher Katy Gash also spoke against partisan School Board elections.

“I think that at every level we say we want our schools not to be partisan,” she said. “We do not want our teachers to be partisan, we don't want our classrooms to be partisan, we do not want our schools to be partisan and I just don't understand where this is coming from. I have not spoken to one educator, I have not spoken to one education leader who has said that this is something that we would benefit from.”