Tensions were high heading into the Oct. 14 forum for Buncombe County Board of Education candidates. The previous afternoon, Kim Plemmons and Rob Elliot had announced they would pull out of the event, being hosted at Black Wall Street AVL in partnership with Mountain Xpress.
Plemmons and Elliot, registered Democrats running for the Erwin and Reynolds district seats in the nonpartisan race, cited recent social media posts by Erwin District candidate and registered Republican Greg Parks, saying their campaigns had concluded the forum “could present public safety issues.” Plemmons in particular referenced a comment Parks had posted on a video by Chad Nesbitt of Skyline News, which stated if “you want to see a fighter, come to [the forum] Friday night.”
The roughly 30 people who attended the forum did see Parks and Republican Reynolds District candidate Sara Disher Ratliff take to the floor — not as fighters, but as dancers. Moderator Aisha Adams opened the event by blasting DJ Casper’s wedding-reception classic, “Cha Cha Slide,” and inviting the two hopeful leaders to show that they could follow instructions as well.
Once Parks and Ratliff had finished sliding to the left, sliding to the right and crisscrossing, the two settled down to answer questions about a race with importance to county voters of all political persuasions. The seven-member school board, on which three seats are contested this year, oversees education for over 22,000 students in Western North Carolina’s largest school district.
(Democratic Enka District board member Judy Lewis and Republican challenger Kim Poteat were both unable to attend the forum. Of the six school board candidates, all but Lewis submitted responses to the Mountain Xpress voter guide, which can be viewed online at avl.mx/c4n.)
The event, supported in part by the American Press Institute’s Election Coverage and Community Listening Fund, also aimed to uplift community voices regarding education issues. As Adams revealed through conversations with the audience, many concerns about the school system are shared among voters with different views, even if they may disagree about how best to solve those issues.
Candidates and audience members alike agreed that securing adequate funding for the school system is a key challenge. Outgoing BCS Superintendent Tony Baldwin had asked Buncombe’s Board of Commissioners to fund about $8.1 million in cost-of-living pay increases this fiscal year, but the board instead plans to phase in those raises starting in fiscal 2023-24.
Anonymous comments collected from the audience via online polling during the forum repeatedly flagged funding as the most important issue in the race. “Show me the money. Work with the commissioners and stand up for us to the [North Carolina] General Assembly,” one attendee wrote. “We need a supplement increase in order to retain our educators. If you don’t have enough people to run the school, you’ll really be in trouble,” wrote another.
Several comments referenced ongoing disputes in the Leandro v. State of North Carolina case, in which a judge ordered the Republican-controlled General Assembly to spend billions on ensuring “a sound basic education” for North Carolina children. The legislature has continued to fight the ruling and appealed to the N.C. Supreme Court, which has yet to issue a decision. Neither Parks nor Ratliff said they would advocate for the General Assembly to go through with the mandated spending.
Other comments emphasized allowing teachers to do their jobs without undue interference from the school board. “Trust your teachers to be professionals — don’t micromanage their every move,” one audience member wrote, while another stated, “Board members have to check their personal opinions at the door when making decisions that affect all students and staff, many who don’t share their same opinions.”
Ratliff echoed that language in response to a question about ensuring equity for underserved student groups. She said teachers too often deal with “bureaucratic red tape” in trying to help children, especially those with special educational needs.
“You offer solutions that people in higher places don’t necessarily know because they don’t see it every day,” Ratliff said, addressing the teachers in the audience. “Equity comes from listening to the solution-driven individuals who are doing that job every single day.”
Fears and questions
Also prevalent among the audience feedback were references to what commenters called “divisive rhetoric” and “inflammatory pictures.” Before the forum, Parks had made several social media posts in which the candidate had objected to “any kind of sexuality or gender ideology” or “critical race theory” being taught in schools.
One of those posts featured a menacing black hand sprouting from the end of a rainbow sleeve — an apparent reference to the LGBTQ community — and said, “I do not accept that you impose your ideas by manipulating the little ones.”
When given an opportunity to discuss his approach to finding common ground with people of different political beliefs, Parks said he liked to “raise difficult questions” to learn more about others.
“I don’t want to say that CRT or hate is being taught in our schools, but what I would be saying as your candidate is there’s a possibility that it could be,” Parks explained. “Sometimes you have to be courageous and you have to ask those tough questions. You have to put things out there to get people to open up and tell you how they really feel about an issue.”
(Previous reporting by Xpress has found no indication that critical race theory is being taught in county schools, and officials with the system have repeatedly said that the theory is not included in the curriculum. During the event itself, Buncombe elementary teacher Lissa Pedersen repeated several times, “We do not teach CRT in Buncombe County Schools.”)
Meanwhile, Ratliff said her campaign hadn’t made any statements on CRT or other hot-button issues. Instead, she said she was focused on issues specific to the Buncombe County system, such as transparency on the school board.
“We are never going to agree on everything, ever,” Ratliff said. “And that’s what makes us human, and that’s what makes us special.”