Durham GOP’s “Better Board, Better Schools” candidate slate is soundly defeated

Published May 19, 2022

By Greg Childress

Five Republicans vying to win control of Durham’s progressive school board were soundly defeated in Tuesday’s election. Four of the five finished last in their respective races.

Durham’s progressive incumbents – Natalie Beyer, Matt Sears and Bettina Umstead – won three of the five seats up grabs. Voters added two newcomers, Emily Chavez and Millicent Rogers. The three incumbents and Rogers are registered Democrats. Chavez is registered unaffiliated.

Tuesday’s winners will serve on the board.

None of the GOP candidates who ran together under the banner “Better Board, Better Schools” in the nonpartisan election seriously challenged the progressive candidates. The concerted attempt to elect a slate of GOP candidates was always a long shot in Durham County where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by more than 5 to 1.

“I don’t know why they thought we would be vulnerable,” Sears said on Wednesday. “I think it will be interesting to look at their campaign finance reports when they are final to see if they thought that money could buy seats.”

A concerted national effort

Republicans in Durham and elsewhere have sought to cash in on voters’ discontent over lengthy, pandemic-related school closures, mask mandates, unfounded claims about critical race theory and other wedge issues. And nationally, conservatives have their sights set on the November General Election and are betting on those wedge issues to help erase slender Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

On Tuesday, Valarie Jarvis, the wife of Immanuel Jarvis, chairman of the Durham County Republican Party, fared best among the “Better Board, Better Schools” candidates. She finished second in a three-way race for Durham’s District 4 school board seat Beyer won with nearly 49% of the vote, according to final but unofficial election results.

A day after her reelection, Beyer told Policy Watch that she welcomes the Democratic process and diverse voices weighing in on Durham schools but is disappointed by “Better Board, Better Schools” representatives’ remarks disparaging public schools.

Natalie Beyer

“It was particularly heartbreaking to see teachers come to the polls and be told by a “Better Board, Better Schools” representative how bad our schools are and how much they’re failing children,” Beyer said. “These folks [teachers] are dedicated and are working tirelessly to serve students every day and to address systemic issues in a state that has historically underfunded its schools.”

Sears also lamented what he called the “Better Board, Better Schools” candidates’ “traditional, uninformed tropes” about the performance of public schools.

Those tropes included comments about the school district’s performance scores and suggestions that educators “could do better if they tried harder,” Sears said. There were also comments that suggested the district isn’t being held accountable for tax dollars spent to educate children, he said.

“I heard a localized version of Make America Great Again (MAGA),” Sears said, referring to former President Donald Trump’s campaign mantra.

Sears expects to see more GOP attempts to gain ground in one of the state’s Democratic strongholds, noting a rowdy school board meeting in April with “Free the Smiles” advocates protesting pandemic-driven mask requirements. A bill approved by the Republican controlled General Assembly called the “Free the Smiles Act” would have allowed parents to opt-out of such requirements. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the measure.

“As we look to be a progressive community and be a place that loves and respects everyone, we will support our students in the ways they are not supported in places like Florida and I think that will continue to drive the minority GOP residents [in Durham] to be noisy in our community but continue to be unsuccessful in stopping the progress we want to see here,” Sears said.

GOP lawmakers in Florida had threatened to withhold funding from school districts that required students to wear masks.

Curtis Hrischuk

Meanwhile, “Better Board, Better Schools” candidates Curtis Hrischuk and Christopher Burns hardly gained any traction among Durham’s progressive voters. Neither candidate received more than 10% of the vote and trailed far behind the winners in their respective races. GOP candidates Joetta MacMiller and Gayathri Rajaraman fared better, garnering 16.27% and 18.96% of the votes in their respective races.

Hrischuk was the more outspoken of the GOP candidates. His social media accounts show him embracing far right positions on issues such as climate change and taxes.

Stealth Republicans?

Bill Busa, director of EQV Analytics, a Durham-based data science nonprofit that works to elect Democratic candidates, first wrote about the GOP school board candidates on the firm’s website.

Busa posted this celebratory tweet Tuesday night:

I am grinning ear to ear at the ignominious defeat that Durham County GOP’s QAnon stealth slate is suffering tonight (here represented by Hrischuk and Burns). Ordinarily I’m not one to lol, but LOL. #ncpol”

Even though the school board race was nonpartisan, Busa told Policy Watch last month that voters needed to know the candidate’s party affiliation to make informed decisions. EQV published a lengthy dossier entitled “Can the GOP Take Over Blue Durham County’s Board of Education (They’re Betting On It)”that documented the candidates’ GOP credentials.

Busa also reported that county GOP leaders attempted to hide the candidate’s conservative connections.

“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.”

Immanuel Jarvis, chair of the Durham County Republican Party, with wife and candidate Valerie Jarvis.

Very little of the “Better Board, Better Schools” campaign literature revealed that the candidates are Republicans. Immanuel Jarvis downplayed the importance of party affiliation in an interview with Policy Watch in April. 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,” Immanuel Jarvis said.

Jarvis could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Sears shared N.C. Department of Public Instruction data that shows steady academic improvement under Superintendent Pascal Mubenga, who was hired in 2017. The district had 11 schools labeled “F” schools in 2015. It only had one in 2019.

“We were heading in the right direction before this pandemic slapped us in the face,” Sears said.