By Ivey Schofield
When an all-white school board in North Carolina voted in June to reassign the district’s two Black principals to assistant principals, Timothy Lance pushed back.
“We are here after 400 years of being mistreated,” Lance, who is Black, told the Columbus County Schools Board of Education at the time. “Enough is enough, and we’re not going to take it any longer.”
When the board didn’t reverse its decision, Lance, who retired last year as a counselor and juvenile crime prevention officer for the district, decided to run for a seat.
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He was one of 10 Black candidates who ran for local offices in Columbus County in the Nov. 8 election. Eight of them sought seats on the county’s two nonpartisan school boards.
Despite grassroots efforts to put more people of color in local office, voters in Columbus County, where 30% of the population is Black, overwhelmingly supported white incumbents.
Only two Black candidates won, according to unofficial results from the N.C. State Board of Election. Barbara Featherson will be the first Black woman to serve on the Columbus County Board of Commissioners, and David Flowers will keep his seat on the city school board after more than 25 years of service.
Lance lost to Ronnie Strickland, who has served on the Columbus County Schools board for four years.
“There’s a race problem in this county that people do not want to talk about,” Lance told the Border Belt Independent this month. “But I’m not going to stop speaking about the issue that seriously affects how we make decisions.”
Racial tensions in this southeastern North Carolina county, home to about 51,000 people, also played a role in the sheriff’s race. Jody Greene, the county’s first Republican sheriff, was suspended by a North Carolina judge last month for making racist remarks during a recorded phone call from 2019.
He is also accused of sexual harassment and trying to influence and intimidate public officials, and he is the subject of an obstruction of justice probe by the State Bureau of Investigation.
Greene resigned and then won re-election on Nov. 8.
Related: Black residents say racism is a part of life in Columbus County
Democrats still outnumber Republicans in Columbus County, but voters this fall overwhelmingly supported conservative candidates. Featherson, who did not face a Republican opponent, was the only Democrat who won.
Two school boards
Columbus is one of few North Carolina counties with two school districts.
Columbus County Schools serve families in the county’s most-rural areas. Only half of the district’s students are white, data shows, but the school board is made up of five white men.
Whiteville City Schools serve about 2,000 students, 42% Black and 38% white. The board consists of one white man, two white women and two Black men. Coleman Barbour, who is Black, chose not to run for re-election and will be replaced by a white man.
“To say that we’re meeting our diversity goals in this county is very disconcerting,” said Curtis Hill, present of the local NAACP chapter. “If you don’t have any representation on the board, you don’t understand the issues, especially after the firing of the principals.”
Strickland said he stood by his vote for the principal reassignments this summer.
“It was the right decision for our students,” he said.
In the 1960s, many North Carolina counties that had created special school districts following the Civil War began to merge with county school districts. The change was in response to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which made school segregation illegal.
The districts in Columbus County never merged.
In 1991, after several Black residents sued the county and alleged that white voters had been casting ballots along racial lines for decades, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina called for the creation of two minority-majority districts with seats on the Columbus County Board of Commissioners.
Jerome McMillian, who is Black and recently changed his political affiliation from Democrat to Republican, represents one of those districts. Featherson will hold the seat when she is sworn in next month. Giles “Buddy” Byrd, who is white, represents the other district.
In July, the Columbus County Board of Elections found an old district map for Columbus County Schools. The discovery led to the removal of Wanda Brooks, who is Black, as a qualified candidate for District 4 because she did not live within the district’s boundaries. Chris Worley, who is white, ran unopposed for the seat.
School boards have become increasingly visible in recent years, making decisions on mask policies and virtual learning during the coronavirus pandemic. Some boards have also taken up issues such as LGBTQ lifestyles and critical race theory.
Across the country, parents have packed board meetings or tuned in to live streams, threatened board members and aired their grievances on social media.
“For decades we’ve wanted more parental involvement in education,” said Lance Fusarelli, a North Carolina State University professor of education. “Well, now we’ve got it.”
In July, the Columbus County Schools board hired a diversity officer, who will investigate ways to recruit more teachers and staff of color.
Anna Richardson, who is white and defeated a Black challenger to maintain her position on the city school board, said at a candidate forum in September that it was important for students to have teachers that looked like them.
The problem, Richardson said at the time, was a shortage of teachers overall.
Lance doesn’t completely agree. “We have qualified people who are deciding to leave and go to other places,” he said.
Georgia Spaulding, one of the Black principals who was reassigned, took a job as principal in Bladen County this summer. She had been the principal of several schools, including Chadbourn Middle School and Edgewood Elementary, since 2002 and was recognized as principal of the year for Columbus County Schools in 2019.
Last year, when one of the county school board members died, the current board appointed a former superintendent, who is a white man, over a former teacher, who is a Black woman.
“They had an opportunity to show diversity by bringing her on, and they elected not to do it,” Lance said.
Byron Fisher, who is white, will replace Barbour on the Whiteville school board.
This week, Flowers thanked Barbour, who received a plaque of commemoration, for his service and long career in education. “You traveled this road before we ever got there,” he said at the city school board meeting, according to The News Reporter.
As chair of the city school board, Richardson said she wants to focus on regaining learning loss that many students experienced due to the pandemic. She said she understands the best ways to accomplish that goal as a professor at Southeastern Community College and a mother of two school-age children.
Strickland said he also wants to focus on curriculum in his upcoming term on the county school board, which he chairs. “We have pulled up our lower-performing students,” he said, “but we do not do a good job of challenging our high-performing students.”
Lance, who said he increasingly attends school board and county commission meetings and serves as the education chair of the Columbus County chapter of the NAACP, worries about the boards’ future plans. He said he is concerned about the county school board’s ability to make decisions about curriculum, since all lean Republican and many do not have professional experience in education.
Strickland, a pharmacist, said running a school board is like running a business. After being elected in 2018, he helped secure a balanced budget, which had a deficit the prior term.
Strickland said he was also proud that the county school board was able to build two new schools, in Cerro Gordo and Tabor City.
Ultimately, the school board’s job, Strickland said, is to prepare young people to become leaders. “There’s probably a future sheriff, county commissioner and school board member sitting in our classrooms right now,” he said.
Lance said he hopes the county school board will make the best decisions for those future leaders, but he’s not optimistic.
“I’m hoping this board will try to do right,” he said, “but it will be hard with an all-white board.”
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