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Commissioners vote to terminate Shearl’s resolution seeking partisan school board races

Tuesday night, Hilary Wilkes, the Highlands representative of the Macon County Board of Education, along with Board Chair Jim Breedlove, presented a resolution to Macon County Commissioners urging them to end consideration of a resolution seeking state lawmakers to change the way board of education members are elected in Macon County. The resolution Wilkes presented was unanimously approved by the Board of Education during their Monday board meeting and was the result of Commissioner John Shearl requesting the county to petition the state to change the election method last month.

“I’m here to speak on behalf of our full board in regard to the resolution discussed at your last meeting, to change our seats from non-partisan to partisan,” said Wilkes. “Thank you for making the decision to table your resolution and tell our board that an opportunity to discuss and weigh in on this issue. At our November meeting, we shared our thoughts. And we all share an opposition to such a change and have voted unanimously on the following resolution.”

The resolution stated that the recent debate among the Macon County Board of Commissioners held without notice to or input from the Macon County Board of Education, with the general public, has included the question of whether the county should petition the local delegation to the NC General Assembly for a local act enabling or requiring the Macon County Board of Education to be elected on a partisan basis. And whereas local interest and concerns have been portrayed as an impetus for supporting such a change, yet recent years demonstrate a widespread political effort with the number of school boards elected in a partisan manner, growing from just 17 of 115 school boards in 2015 to more than 50 after the most recent General Assembly.

“Members of the Macon County Board of Education have been elected on a non-partisan basis since at least 1968,” reads the resolution. “If the board were elected on a partisan basis, Macon County citizens who are registered independent or unaffiliated would be required to petition for inclusion on ballots and pursuant to the Hatch Act, those who are federal employees would be forced to choose between their appointment and holding office or even participating in a partisan election for the Board of Education.”

The resolution also noted that unlike other elected officials, school board members must bear sole allegiance to the students and parents they serve, and not leaders or platforms of specific political parties.

“School boards have the primary responsibility for setting school policy and hiring school teachers and administrators, and neither of these responsibilities should be influenced by political party affiliation,” reads the resolution. “Educational issues decided by the school board are non-partisan issues, and the board’s judicial and personnel functions must be non-partisan.”

Chairman Breedlove expressed his gratitude for opportunity to share the school system’s perspective with the board.

“We do appreciate this opportunity to delve into it a little bit deeper,” said Breedlove. “I’ve been serving on the board for 15 years. I’m very proud of our work. I think we always follow the creed that we have in our boardroom, which says, in the best interest of the students. And that is what drives us.”

Macon County Board of Education’s newest board member, Diedre Breeden, a Republican, spoke to commissioners urging them to terminate the pending resolution.

“It’s really important to get to know your candidates at the personal level, what they stand for, because as I’ve said a lot of times while I was running and campaigning for office, I’m not a politician,” said Breeden. “Don’t call me that. You know, I may identify with the Republican Party, but I’m not a politician. Because who I identify as, number one, is a follower of Christ, a wife, and a mom. And that, I mean, that is what leads how I vote and makes that I stand for it. And all of us on our board have similar things that motivate us, and it’s not a D or an R or an I. Then there are people who, from the other side, who do not support this being a partisan race for that very issue.”

Breeden continued by saying that more than the issue of the county entertaining a resolution to change the method in which the board of education is elected, the issue Breeden had was how the county was willing to consider such a resolution, which ignoring the real, genuine needs of the school system.

“And I think that’s kind of an undeniable truth that we all have to accept the grass is green, the sky is blue, and this is a politically charged world. So people want to know. Okay. But here’s where my issue with this whole concept,” said Breeden. “When I first got notified last month that this was on your agenda, I took a pause and I said, okay, is Nantahala on the agenda? No. About the middle school track? No. Okay. Those are the issues that over the last year I keep a running list of my phone and a little red book that I carry around. The voters are reaching out to me with their concerns. All the things that I’m learning is all of these real-time issues that impact our students, our teachers, our staff, our families. Those are the things that I want to see discussed between our two boards.”

Commissioner Danny Antoine said that since the November meeting he had spoke with several people, members of the board of education included and now has a different perspective of the issue and because of that and his desire to support the board of education, he made a motion to terminate any further discussion on a resolution to make the local board of education partisan and that motion was seconded by Commissioner Josh Young.

Commissioner John Shearl then spoke to again make his case for introducing the resolution and for why he believes the board should be elected on a partisan basis, which is to fall in line with state and national trends.

“This is a much better picture in the state and national level. If it’s not, then why do we have almost half of the school district in North Carolina, not going to parks and races? It seems like that there is a much bigger problem in education beyond Macon County,” said Shearl.

Shearl then suggested that the Macon County Board of Education has limited power and authority over the education of Macon County children.

“And politics is in every breath that we take. And it just seems like the five school board members feel like it’s a direct tackle on them personally and also, what you’re doing for the kids, and it is not,” said Shearl. “We understand what you’re doing for the kids. But who sets the policies above and beyond the Macon County school system? That would be the question. These policies are handed down to the Macon County school system, and you follow those And you have very limited power when it comes to how the school system actually operates.”

Chairman Breedlove responded and clarified to Commissioner Shearl that the local board does in fact have significant authority over local schools and that it is his belief that politics hold play no role in those decisions.

“With all due respect, I disagree with the assumption that you just had about politics,” said Breedlove. “I’m not worried about state politics. We operate just like your board does. We have a lot of control on how the school system in Macon County conducts itself, how our curriculum is established, and how we try to do our best for our students to succeed. So we don’t care, bluntly, about national politics. I don’t care about state politics…Our goal is to do what is in the best interest of the Macon County students, period. That’s all we’re trying to do.”

The Macon County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to terminate the resolution to make the local school board race partisan with Commissioner John Shearl casting the lone dissenting vote.

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