by Eric Ginsburg
Three of the Guilford County School Board races will be decided by the March 15 primary election, but the most competitive may be the matchup between incumbent Linda Welborn and former board member Paul Daniels, both Republicans, in the eastern part of the county.
Newcomer Linda Welborn ended Paul Daniels’ tenure on the Guilford County School Board after just one term, beating him during his 2012 re-election bid. And now at the end of Welborn’s first term, Daniels is looking to return the favor. But this year’s contest between the two looks radically different than it did four years earlier.
Redistricting by the state dramatically altered the school board, reducing the total number of positions on the board, redrawing district maps to match the Guilford County Commission and making the races partisan. And there’s a considerable chance that those alterations increase Daniels chances in 2016.
Welborn currently represents District 5 on the school board, which runs across the southern edge of Guilford County. But she and Daniels live in the new District 4, which is more rural and extends the length of the county’s eastern border. With no Democratic candidates for the conservative-leaning area, the Republican primary on March 15 will determine who holds the seat. And given that Daniels is considered the more conservative of the two contenders, he likely has a strong shot at claiming the new district from Welborn.
District 4 covers more land than any of the other seven, from the southeastern-most corner to the north-central part of the county and hooking into a small, northerly swath of Greensboro to Battleground Avenue including Christ Lutheran Church and Lewis Recreation Center precincts, among others. It includes McLeansville, Sedalia and Whitsett.
The candidates said that the race isn’t personal, but Daniels added that the election presents voters with two distinct choices. In him, voters can find a budget hawk who has always been concerned with administrative accountability, school safety and budget transparency, Daniels said, characterizing his opponent as someone who freely spends money on programs and who is overly focused on castigating state lawmakers for educational reforms.
Welborn, who serves on the board’s legislative, governance and budget committees, said she has come under attack for her opposition to charter schools and for not embracing the Republican Party’s educational agenda wholesale. There’s even a website launched after the election began, lindawelbornisademocrat.com, that targets her stance on charters in particular. Daniels, who said he was unaware of the website, brought a copy of a 2014 op-ed Welborn wrote in the News & Record to an interview with Triad City Beat three days after the same letter appeared on the attack website. It is unclear who runs the website that calls Welborn a “progressive Democrat.”
But Welborn doesn’t mind the criticism; she’s proud of her record and of her willingness to stand up for what she believes regardless of whether it fits with party talking points. She’ll vote for a Republican for president and certainly identifies as one, but Welborn stresses that she is her own person and isn’t beholden to a party or faction.
Daniels said he is running because he’s disappointed that the school board hasn’t made any progress on important issues including an achievement gap, graduates who need to take remedial classes in college, a lack of technical and vocational training to prepare students for high-paying local jobs and a lack of budgetary oversight.
“I don’t think we’re preparing our kids for the good quality jobs that are out there,” Daniels said, adding that many students aren’t going to college and it would be great to set them up with the skills and certification to pursue available mechanic jobs.
But Daniels’ biggest focus may be the budget. While school board members gripe about a lack of funding, it’s enough to buy an NBA or NHL team, Daniels said, adding that any time the former superintendent wanted money for a special project, the board miraculously found the funds.
“There is a great deal we can do without worrying about what’s happening in Raleigh,” Daniels said.
The board doesn’t spend enough time reviewing the budget, he added, and instead rubber stamps what staff proposes without a clear understanding of what initiatives will accomplish or if existing programs work. Instead, Daniels supports a zero-based budgeting model touted by some conservatives as an approach where everything is evaluated and nothing is a given.
“Let’s quit messing around,” Daniels said. “We’ve been doing the same old song and dance forever.”
Welborn didn’t express concern about the board’s budget, other than the lack of funding provided by the state. She’s reached out to state legislators about the importance of “rebuilding a pipeline for strong educational professionals” who are passionate about teaching children; without it, Welborn is worried about the direction of public education in the state.
“The constant disparaging of our educators has led to a decrease in the number of people going into the educational field,” Welborn said.
That doesn’t just come into play with teacher pay or overall funding, but also with an evaluation system that labels schools as “low performing” based on a one-day test that doesn’t indicate whether a school has improved over time, she said.
Welborn wants to see more of an effort to “deal with the whole child,” especially when it comes to a lack of mental health resources. Welborn said if reelected, she intends to focus on it as one of her issues, adding that addressing mental health would lead to safer school environments as well.
Daniels said if more “wraparound” services are needed, he’s all for it, and would support partnering with churches and businesses “to get kids where they need to be.”
Welborn said she’s approached her tenure on the board with a priority on the schools in her district but with a concern for the wellbeing of all students. That’s why she’s worked with educators in District 4 while serving in the old District 5, and why she is confident in her chances in the primary.
She described herself as responsive, as someone who doesn’t give up, and as someone who keeps their word. And those are some of the reasons she first ran four years ago, after several years as an active parent and organizer with the Southeast Educational Advancement Coalition in the bottom quadrant of District 4.
But Daniels said the school board in general isn’t proactive, and instead is led around by staff who don’t deserve blind trust. Pointing at Welborn’s 2014 column criticizing the NC General Assembly’s approach to education, Daniels said the current board is more inclined to complain about Raleigh than to fix problems within its grasp.
“That’s not leadership,” he said. “Some things we can’t do anything about, but there’s a lot we could.”