On paper, electing a slate of registered Republicans to the Durham County school board appears to be a near mathematical impossibility.
In this county, Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 5 to 1. In partisan races, such as the Board of Commissioners, GOP candidates are rarely successful.
However, school board contests are designated as “nonpartisan,” which lends the races a false sense of neutrality. Five registered Republicans are challenging three Democratic incumbents and one unaffiliated member for the authority to steer the direction of Durham Public Schools. A fifth board member is not seeking reelection.
The winners of the May 17 election will serve on the board.
Immanuel Jarvis, chairman of the Durham County Republican Party, recruited the slate, whose political slogan is “Better Board, Better Schools.” One of the candidates is Jarvis’s wife, Valarie Jarvis. She is running for the District 4 seat held by veteran board member Natalie Beyer. Beyer said her District 4 seat is the most vulnerable of the five.
“I think we have to take it very seriously,” Beyer said. “Voters need to come out and support candidates who have the heart and knowledge to serve the entire community with our shared values.”
The other four Republican candidates are Joetta MacMiller, Gayathri Rajaraman, Curtis Hrischuk, and Christopher Burns.
A ‘stealth’ campaign with potentially far-reaching impact?
Very little campaign literature reveals that the candidates are Republicans. Immanuel Jarvis downplayed the importance of party affiliation in an interview with Policy Watch. Even though Jarvis assembled the candidate list, he contends the county party “didn’t actively look for a Republican slate.”
“We looked for people and parents and grandmas and community stakeholders who recognize the low (academic) proficiency rates, who recognize the watering down of education,” he said.
Nancy MacLean, a Duke University history professor and author of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, said the school board candidates’ strategy of downplaying party affiliation is consistent with what she found while researching her book.
“What we have been seeing statewide and nationally, and now locally in Durham, is a radical right that understands that its policy agenda is unpopular, so it has to deceive, distract, or rig election rules to gain power,” MacLean told Policy Watch.
She said the GOP’s strategy is designed to take advantage of voters’ not knowing who the people on the slate really are.
“That means it can only succeed if residents who care about our public schools, transparency, and democracy fail to do everything possible to alert our fellow Durham voters to this very unseemly gambit—including going door to door before the primaries,” MacLean said.
If the GOP’s “stealth slate” of school board candidates is successful, MacLean added, Durham could see “radical changes” in school board policy.
“Not only would they be likely to prohibit honest teaching of our history and contemporary issues involving race and gender and perhaps science, too, but also to push tax subsidies for private schooling, including religious schools,” she said.
An invitation on the county GOP’s website to a recent “School Board Meet and Greet” provides a clue about the candidates’ conservatism and party affiliations: “We have the right people and the right platform to win this election!! The opportunity of 5 open seats and five viable conservative candidates may not happen again for a long while. Now is the time to act!”
The Republican-backed candidates, Immanuel Jarvis said, are unhappy with the quality of education children are receiving in Durham Public Schools. “They felt like it wasn’t fair and wanted to do something about it,” Jarvis said.
Democrats seek to shine a spotlight
Bill Busa, director of EQV Analytics, a Durham-based data science nonprofit that works to elect Democratic candidates, dismissed Jarvis’s comments. “I’m not even going to honor his [Jarvis’] assertion by raising a counter-argument,” Busa said.
Busa has been vocal online, however, in exposing what he says is the GOP’s attempt to take advantage of the nonpartisan nature of school board races. EQV published a lengthy dossier entitled “Can the GOP Take Over Blue Durham County’s Board of Education (They’re Betting On It)” that documents the candidates’ GOP credentials.
“The last thing on earth that the five ‘Better Board, Better Schools’ candidates want you to know is their party affiliation,” Busa wrote. “Under this cloak of secrecy…the BBBS slate’s candidates are all hyper-partisan Republicans.”
Of the candidates, only Curtis Hrischuk returned messages from Policy Watch for an interview. An engineer, Hrischuk immigrated to the U.S. from Canada, he said, and has never voted in an American election.
He is concerned about what he calls the “sexualization” of children in public schools. The issue is one of the less visible planks in the slate’s platform. “We have no idea what sort of confusion, what that [teaching about transgenderism and homosexuality] might induce in their character and personality development,” Hrischuk said.
Hrischuk said he’s also concerned about data showing many students in his district aren’t reading or doing math at grade level. N.C. Department of Public Instruction data show several schools in District 1 falling below DPS and state averages in accountability measures. “That is a tremendous burden on these young people who have to compete globally,” Hrischuk said. “The jobs require skills that they aren’t getting.”
Hrischuk has the highest social media profile among the GOP candidates with posts denying climate change and criticizing progressive billionaire George Soros, who he contends is “manipulating government for his own very sick agenda.” That post, highlighted by Busa, links to a Breitbart.com story that takes Soros to task for his involvement in efforts to reform law enforcement agencies in the wake of controversial police killings of Black men.
MacLean also noted Hrischuk’s hard right stances on global warming and tax revenue.
“Can you imagine the school policies he’d implement?” she asked.
Among the other candidates, Valarie Jarvis is a well-known Durham County Republican and a precinct chairwoman. Busa found that MacMiller is a member of a conservative group known as the New Group of Patriots. She’s also listed as a participant in the recent NC Values Coalition’s “Mama Bear Workshops” that occurred last week to show parents and grandparents how to “protect their children and grandchildren from harmful curriculum and indoctrination in schools.”
Burns and Rajaraman have very little internet presence. Busa reported that Burns is an independent contractor who received more than $30,000 from the federal Paycheck Protection Program in 2020-2021.
Busa believes the GOP candidates have a fair chance to win seats on the board despite historical voting patterns favoring Democrats. “A lot of people go into the [voting] booth not knowing the party affiliation of school board candidates and they are strongly influenced by voter information cards [handed out at polling place],” he said. “And let’s face it, on the surface, their message has all the right signals; building a better school board, putting children first. People could fall for that.”
Pandemic controversies feed a national trend
Democrats in North Carolina and across the country are anxious about upcoming elections. Republicans hope to cash in on parents’ discontent with school boards. In some counties, parents and others who don’t have children in the school districts, have flocked to board meetings to heap criticism on members for acting too slowly to reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and for imposing face masks mandates.
The Durham school board has been one of the few remaining boards in North Carolina to keep a mask mandate in place. The board recently voted to lift the mandate, effective April 11, but still recommended that masks be worn. Policy Watch reported last June on the concerted effort in North Carolina by right-leaning political operatives to use face mask mandates and critical race theory as wedge issues to turn local elections and the 2022 mid-terms in the GOP’s favor.
Most educators say critical race theory, an academic discipline that examines how racism has shaped American law and public policy, is not taught in K-12 classrooms.
David Dixon, chairman of the Durham County Democratic Party, said the party was not surprised to see Republicans on the ballot for school board. “It’s really no different than what we’ve seen around the state and around the country where there has been an attack on our school boards,” Dixon said, “whether it’s coming from a COVID-protocol standpoint to protect our children and teachers and other county employees, but also an attack on critical race theory, which most folks who’ve taken time to understand what it is, know it isn’t being taught on a K-12 level.”
Anderson Clayton, chairman of the Person County Democratic Party, who also holds a state leadership post, said there is an uptick in “right-wing candidates coming out and saying they are going to be running for school board.”
Democrats are deciding not to run because they feel bullied by conservatives, Clayton said. “Republicans have been very good at getting together the parents, even if they don’t have kids in public schools, parents with kids in private schools and charter schools are coming to school board meetings to protest mask mandates,” Clayton said.
MacLean called the strategy “ugly,” and one that uses intimidation, disinformation “and ginning up culture wars to attack Democratic school boards.”
The GOP’s strategy worked to perfection in Virginia where Republican Glenn Youngkin a political newcomer, defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former governor, in a tightly contested governor’s race in which Youngkin’s opposition to critical race theory became a winning issue.
“Again and again, investigative journalists are finding, behind it all is dark money coming from the likes of the anti-public education network of donors built by [conservative billionaire] Charles Koch and his allies on the corporate and religious wings of the right,” MacLean said.