Republican-backed candidates cause stir in Durham school board race

Chris Seward/N&O file photo
·4 min read

It’s election season again in Durham, and this year a band of Republican contestants is running for the deep-blue county’s Board of Education.

A total of 14 candidates are running in Tuesday’s election.

Campaigning under the slogan “Better Boards, Better Schools,” the five Republican candidates are Curtis Hrischuk (District 1), Chris Burns (District 2), Gaya Rajaraman (District 3), Valarie Jarvis (District 4) and Joetta MacMiller (Consolidated District B).

The News & Observer repeatedly contacted Durham County GOP Chair Immanuel Jarvis and candidates for comment last week, but none had responded as of Saturday morning.

Although the bloc has not publicly expressed conservative views, campaign finance records show the Durham County Republican Party and the director of an immigration-reduction organization, NumbersUSA, have donated hundreds of dollars to the campaigns of Hrischuk, MacMiller, Jarvis and Burns.

The “stealth slate,” as critics are calling them, could have a tough time winning in Durham, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 5 to 1. Board of Elections Director Derek Bowens notes 54% of Durham County’s 232,901 registered voters, or roughly 54%, are Democrats. Fewer than 10% of voters are Republican.

“I predict that the Republican stealth slate for the Durham school board is going to get crushed by the voters,” former Mayor Steve Schewel wrote in an email to The N&O.

“Durham parents, teachers and voters at large want school board members who are focused on our kids, not on somebody’s political agenda,” he wrote. “As a former school board member myself, I can tell you that we love our children too much for that.”

EQV Analytics, a progressive campaign data analytics firm, published a report, “Can the GOP Take Over Blue Durham County’s Board of Education?” in March. Bill Busa, the firm’s executive director and resident of Durham, said it’s imperative that the district’s board does not become “Republican-controlled.”

“Superficially, it seems kind of quixotic for five Republicans to even entertain the possibility that they could be elected to the school board simultaneously in Durham County until you stop to think about the school board election is nonpartisan,” Busa said in an interview.

Durham voters often do not know the party affiliations of the candidates they are voting for. And unlike many other statewide and countywide races, the non-partisan school board election Tuesday will be the final vote for five open seats.

“I’ve called them a stealth slate of candidates because I think that it’s clear that the Republican party has gone to great lengths to hide the party affiliations of these candidates, specifically to sneak a Republican school board in below the radar in Durham County,” Busa said.

In towns nationwide, teaching race through America’s history and its institutions — or Critical Race Theory — has become a major flashpoint as more teachers discuss its impacts on the present with their students.

Cathy McCarthy, a former Duke University medical librarian, said she is very concerned about this group.

“This initiative centralized in the GOP is aiming to turn education at the public level into a farce by denying the history of this country, and they’re thinking that if they can take Durham, they can take any where,” McCarthy said.

Hrischuck, MacMiller and Jarvis have received endorsements from the North Carolina Grassroots Government, a Republican political action committee, that has promised that its candidates will “uphold the Constitution, adhere to the biblical principles upon which it is founded, and faithfully execute the clearly defined duties of their office on behalf of the citizens of NC.”

Sarah Bickley, a Durham resident and former Montessori school teacher, said some Republican supporters are attempting to ban books by writers of color and/or of the LGBTQ community, before dismantling the public school system in America through regressive policies.

“They don’t say it, but the conservative movement wants to get rid of public schools and have everything [all schools] be private,” Bickley added. “All of this is against democracy.”

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