Filing has closed and the field is set for a Union County Public Schools Board of Education election that is likely to become a referendum on school funding and redistricting.
Twelve candidates will vie for five seats – including two in which the incumbents opted not to run for re-election – in November’s election. All five seats with terms that expire this year will be contested after a year in which redistricting became an emotional and controversial issue for many parents and administrators and current school board members continued their legal fight with the county over more funding. Contested seats include Districts 1, 3, 4 and 6 and an at-large bid, while District 4’s Rick Pigg and at-large board member Sherry Hodges (who failed in her bid for county commissioner in the May primary) did not file for nomination. Neither returned calls for comment by Union County Weekly’s press deadline.
Incumbents Richard Yercheck (District 3 representative and board chairman) and Marce Savage (District 6 representative and board vice-chair) filed for re-election. Nine newcomers, which include a police officer, a retired teacher and a former social worker, will join them on the ballot.
District 1 voters (Monroe area) will go to the polls to replace John Crowder, who served on the board for 31 years before his death in March. While Rev. Jim Bention Sr. has served in his place since being appointed in May, this will be the first time either he or challenger Sharon Harrell will campaign for an election.
Bention said he will not campaign by taking a specific stance on certain issues, but simply wants to focus on putting the best people in Union County schools – from teachers to administration to maintenance staff.
“I don’t put myself under issues; I put myself under service,” he said. “I’m someone who leads from the whole and not from the part.”
Harrell credits God with telling her to run and said it is not an idea she could have come up with on her own. She does, however, see it as a natural progression after retiring from a career where she worked as a social worker, guidance counselor and teacher in Union County.
“After the seat became available as a result of John Crowder’s death, I was reflecting on his loss,” she said. “He was a constant presence throughout my tenure with UCPS, and what he did was always to benefit every child, not just some children. That’s when God put it in my heart to file.”
While candidates have spoken about issues ranging from testing standards to school renovations, redistricting remains at the forefront of many citizens’ minds.
Many of the nominees agreed when reached for comment this week that rebuilding trust will be key following a year full of contentious meetings in which parents, board members and county commissioners would often butt heads.
District 4 (northern Union) nominee Melissa Merrell was one of the parents attending meetings and demanding answers after her kids were affected by changed district lines. She was upset that some board members didn’t meet with some parents during the redistricting debates and believes she can do better.
“A lot of times the parents felt mocked, like our concerns weren’t valid,” she said. “Relationships are about communication, and right now the relationship is very broken. I hope I can come in with a clean slate and start to mend those relationships.”
Casey Carver, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officer and Monroe resident, also is running in District 4. He did not fight against redistricting as it did not affect his family, but said he is familiar with what he called a “necessary evil.”
Carver emphasizes that whatever the board does should be done transparently and not behind closed doors. He hopes to begin rebuilding trust so the board can focus on other issues such as bullying and school maintenance.
“I’d like to see us get (redistricting])behind us where a majority of people are happy,” he said. “I know some of that stuff got ugly. I’ve read that people found board members rude and disrespectful, and that’s unacceptable. If I’m put there by you, I work for you.”
Carver and Merrell will not face an incumbent in District 4, where Pigg will continue to serve until December. They will, however, run against former board member Monica Frank, who served from 2002 to 2006 and decided to try to rejoin the board as her grandson prepares to enter UCPS. Frank believes communication will be key to getting the board and citizens back on the same team and hopes to use public hearings throughout Union County to build on that.
Also returning to the campaign trail is Dennis Rape, who will run against Sean Maher and Leslie Boyd for the available at-large seat. Rape has run unsuccessfully in each of the last three board of education elections.
Rape, 60, has lived in Union County his entire life and taught for eight years in UCPS. He is taking a strong anti-redistricting stance to campaigning, as he believes neighborhood schools are important for a child’s education. He said he’d like to shift focus away from technology in schools to putting teachers back at the forefront.
Rape was taken aback at a list he saw published in a local publication listing “Things That Nobody Says.” Within the list was the statement, “I want to be a Union County Board of Education member.”
Rape said he and his family got a good laugh at the implication.
“I must be an oddball because that’s my wish,” he said. “People keep asking why I would want to do this. It’s because I want to have a positive influence.”
Other races include Yercheck defending his District 3 seat (part of Monroe westward) against challenger Gary Sides. Also, Savage will campaign to keep her seat in District 6 (Indian Trail area) against a challenge from financial consultant Jason Marton.
District 2 (Kevin Stewart), District 5 (John Collins) and two at-large seats (Michael Guzman and Christina Helms) are not up for election this year.
Union County Weekly will soon send questionnaires to this year’s candidates and include their answers in a future article. Send topics you would like to see included in the questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.