NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The school board took a major swing to the right after Wednesday’s election. Its current make up is 5-2 Democrat leaning, but by the time the new board is sworn in, it will be a 5-2 Republican majority, once the votes are canvassed and pending no one challenges the slim margins.
The shift could have major implications for the district’s approach to school safety, curriculum oversight, and refocusing on academic achievement.
In a crowded race of eight candidates, four Republicans rose to the top on election night. Pete Wildeboer defended his seat and garnered the second-most votes behind Pat Bradford, publisher of Wrightsville Beach Magazine. Josie Barnhart and Melissa Mason expect to join Bradford as new board members.
New Hanover County Republican Party chair Will Knecht admitted the results exceeded his expectations.
“I’ll be honest, it was a bit of a surprise,” Knecht said. “It was our objective, no doubt about it, but I think you understand how hard it was to achieve that, how much time and effort and money it took to support our amazing candidates to make that happen.”
The Republicans massively outraised the Democrats. Bradford’s campaign trumped all eight school board candidates’ fundraising efforts, taking in $81,700 from mostly individual donors by the end of the third quarter. Altogether Republicans raised almost $143,000.
The Democrats, meanwhile, raised about $76,000 in the same time period. Veronica McLaurin-Brown was the best-funded Democrat, reporting almost $41,000, also mostly raised through individual donations. The New Hanover County Board of Elections did not show a third quarter report for incumbent Nelson Beaulieu in its database on Wednesday, but by the end of the second quarter he had raised $465.
Only 2 percentage points separated the highest and lowest tallies, which still remain unofficial. Bradford garnered 13.12% of the vote, while Beaulieu finished last at 11.5%. The close margins are causing one candidate to consider a recount.
“I might, I certainly might,” Judy Justice said. “There’s certainly a problem, but I have to wait a while.”
According to North Carolina General Statute 163-182.7(b) & (c), a candidate has until 5 p.m. on the first business day after the canvass, or when election tallies are certified, to request a recount. The New Hanover County board of elections will meet on Nov. 18 to compile the official report.
However, another member of her party, Dorian Cromartie, was more accepting of the results.
“It was a true and fair election,” Cromartie said. “I think that all the candidates did their best to reach their goals.”
Bradford, Mason and Barnhart have campaigned on similar platforms — promoting parental involvement in academics, increasing security to make schools safer, decreasing the amount of the school day spent on social and emotional learning.
Mason told Port City Daily these priorities will remain the same when she takes office. Out of the three women, she was the only one to respond to Port City Daily’s interview request after the election.
She said the community’s dissatisfaction with the current board prompted her to begin her run in the first place and is what ultimately led to her election.
“The community members were fed up with what had been happening and that really brought about that change — that noticing of the dysfunction that was happening,” she said. “The way that our kids were being educated was not in alignment with what the community itself had really signed up for.”
Mason, Bradford and Barnhart have promoted beliefs some have described as “extreme,” such as making accusations the district teaches Critical Race Theory (which is untrue) and efforts to remove certain books in school libraries.
“I am a parent and educator who believes we should seek to keep our kids safe,” Mason said. “I believe that children deserve an excellent education with access to enriching literature. I believe that administrators and educators should serve as positive role models for all students in their community. These are not extreme beliefs.”
Following a sheriff’s office investigation in May, the district attorney cleared nine books submitted by parents that stated its content was “obscene” and “pornographic.” Despite DA Ben David’s affirmation the books did not violate the law and were protected by free speech, Mason accused him of not following the law.
“Our tax dollars shouldn’t be paying for those books,” Mason said. “I read some of these books that are actually in the libraries, and they’re not appropriate developmentally.”
She advocates for a book review committee to determine the suitability of what is cataloged in NHCS libraries.
“[It’s about] finding individuals who really want to help enrich our kids’ reading and finding books that are high quality that are well written and that address, you know, things that we want them to learn history,” Mason said.
Another problem the new candidates addressed is the district’s use of social and emotional learning — or education on social awareness and building relationships.
In her candidate questionnaire to Port City Daily, Bradford advocated for more time spent on traditional academics and “less time on feelings.”
“Curriculum must refocus on the basics: teaching students to read, write and add a column of figures — those are equalizers for all — plus the history of our nation.”
During a candidate forum on Oct. 5, hosted by Port City Daily, WECT and WHQR, Bradford admitted she did not know the definition or purpose of social and emotional learning, despite its mandated presence in school curricula. She said while “feelings are awesome,” the board needed to restore balance to academics.
The three board member-elects have also championed more transparency about NHCS curricula, and the ability for parents to have more control over their children’s learning. In Barnhart’s questionnaire, she said:
“I support the process for parents to be able to opt out their child out of lessons that go against religious views. I also support parents being able to challenge curricula that are being used.
Incumbent Wildeboer noted school safety is a viable concern. With another term, he is looking to implement safety teams to address the needs of each individual facility.
“[We need to] support those safety teams, and find ways to fund wherever they may need, whether it be training, whether it be structural improvements, to make it safe, as safe as possible,” he said.
With the addition of three more of his party members to the board, Wildeboer said he was excited to work with the newcomers.
“I think we’re gonna make a great team,” he said. “I think the whole group, the whole seven of us together will be a wonderful working environment.”
However, some candidates expressed unease with where the board is heading. Incumbent Judy Justice claimed the winners’ campaigns were built on the capitalization of hot-button issues rather than real problems facing the district.
“They were all about fear mongering things that weren’t going on,” Justice said. “They’re not prepared to go in there and do what we need.”
Cromartie added his concern is for the whole, district-wide.
“Every school, every student, every teacher, every parent,” he said. “I’m concerned about the suspension policy. I’m concerned about the social emotional learning programs.”
Justice points to the lack of unity in the Democratic Party and failure to use modern tactics, such as social media, as the reason for the four liberals’ defeat.
“The Democratic Party needs to step up to the task of 2022 and start making a lot of noise too, but in the right way, not the way the Republicans did,” Justice said.
Both Justice and Cromartie wanted to see the Democratic Party stress the urgency and importance of elections more. Cromartie, particularly, addressed the need to appeal more to young voters.
“I mean anyone 45 and below,” he clarified. “I think that our focus needs to be elections year round — and that includes churches, they need to be involved in this. And, absolutely, we need to make sure that all people are aware that there’s an election every single year.”
New Hanover County Democratic Party Chair Andre Brown said the negative perception without proper context surrounding the current school board cost the party at the polls.
“Our local school system has been placed on a sustainable path forward during the past four years,” Brown said. “I wish those positive actions attributable to the current board were amplified more forcefully.”
Moving beyond the party politics of the campaign trail, Mason said she is prepared to work across the aisle during her term.
“I think that we have this common goal, it’s just how do we accomplish it?” she said. I know that there are certain issues that are absolutely nonpartisan issues, seclusion rooms being one of them, holding [Foust] accountable being another one. You know, I think that there are issues that we can come together on and if we can find those issues, we can absolutely accomplish much more than fighting over.”
[Ed. Note: The piece has been updated to reflect a 5-2 Democrat-leaning board, not 4-3 as originally posted; Port City Daily regrets the error.]
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at firstname.lastname@example.org