The longtime Chatham County School Board Dist. 3 incumbent Del Turner, who has been on the board since 2010, faces a challenge from Jessica Winger, a Chatham County Schools parent and substitute teacher calling for more transparency from the board.
The race has brought sharp focus on issues such as Critical Race Theory, parent oversight in curriculum and school safety to the local stage. Bigger-than-usual donations, advertisements and social media posts have also swirled around the election, which has turned contentious.
School board seats in Chatham County are technically nonpartisan, but Turner has frequently affiliated with and attended events with the Chatham County Democratic Party, while Winger has done the same with Chatham County Republicans. And as candidates, the two have differing opinions when it comes to what they believe is best for the students and stakeholders of Chatham County Schools.
Turner, retired finance director and former Assistant Comptroller, has lived in Chatham for 32 years and is seeking her fourth term on the board of education. She says she’s running to finish what she started — increasing local subsidies for teachers, enhancing opportunities through the growth of AVID and ensuring a timely K-12 civics curriculum for all students.
Winger, a CCS mother, yoga teacher and substitute teacher, has lived in Chatham for two years. She’s running to unseat Turner because she believes decisions by the board during COVID-19 caused harm to the students of CCS. She says the pandemic caused distrust between parents and the school board, something she hopes to restore if elected.
During her 12 years on the board, Turner has been a staunch supporter of AVID — Advancement Via Individual Determination — a college readiness program with the mission to close the achievement gap. The program aims to eliminate racial and socioeconomic barriers to post-secondary education. According to the national AVID website, 94% of AVID students complete four-year college entrance requirements, 90% who apply are accepted into four-year colleges, and low-income alumni are four times more likely to graduate than their national peers.
The program precedes Turner’s time on the school board, but she has helped expand the program to middle and elementary schools. She said AVID heightens study habits and critical thinking skills in students and improves behavioral discipline.
Turner also said she wants to improve school equity efforts created by socioeconomic divides within the county, which she said is the biggest challenge facing CCS.
“Income disparities across the county, exacerbated by the pandemic, as well as the lack of broadband access for the entire county, hampers educational attainment on all levels,” Turner said.
She said as the county continues on its rapid growth path, ensuring equity in education becomes all the more important in helping guarantee preparedness for jobs at all levels.
Winger said her motivation for seeking office is to be a stronger voice for parents on the board. Her goals as a board member would include holding listening sessions for parents to improve direct interaction between parents and teachers. She also wants to form an advisory committee for parents to provide feedback for the school board.
Under Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson, there already is a CCS Parent Advisory Committee, but Winger said the committee doesn’t go far enough because it is not accessible for all parents. The current committee includes one parent from each school as a representative.
The challenger also said she wants to increase transparency between the board and the public by creating a monthly report coinciding with meeting information.
“There are no readily viewable receipts, contract awards or contracting processes for the public to easily review,” Winger said.
While all public records are accessible through the school district’s website, Winger said she believes the current website is too difficult to navigate for many parents and community members.
The biggest challenge in education right now, according to Winger, is getting students back on track following the COVID-19 pandemic. She said students are experiencing developmental delays from masking and other pandemic policies.
“The school board has failed to build a meaningful and significant bond with the families they represent,” Winger said. “It seems that outside influences and special interests have replaced parents’ voices in critical education matters.”
At the peak of the pandemic, Winger was a vocal advocate for the return to in-person learning as quickly as possible in CCS and called for optional masking in schools.
The opposing viewpoints and partisanship of this school board race has garnered the attention of many both inside and outside of the county. According to campaign finance reports, Winger and Turner have each received more than $4,000 in individual campaign contributions for this cycle.
No other school board candidate has raised more than $1,000 in the race — the mandatory reporting threshold to make documentation of campaign finances public in North Carolina.
And who’s giving each candidate funding tells a deeper story about the election itself.
One large single contribution in the school board election came from Charles Strauch, a Republican mega-donor with ties to the FreedomWorks PAC. The PAC is backed by the Koch Brothers with aims to “elect candidates who fight for lower taxes, less government and more freedom.” He’s frequently given donations of $10,000 or more to the national Republican party as well as Republican candidates across the East Coast including Tim Scott, Thom Tillis and Glenn Youngkin, according to campaign finance database Open Secrets.
Strauch, a Hilton Head, S.C., resident, gave $1,000 to Winger’s campaign and was one of her first donors after she filed. He is also the father of Amy Kappelman, chairperson of Chatham County Moms for Liberty.
The national organization of Moms for Liberty has called for book banning in schools, falsely used CRT as a catch-all for race-related school issues and openly attacked LGBTQ+ students.
Strauch is not the only MFL donor to Winger’s campaign. She also received a $1,000 donation from Katherine Dula, vice chair of Chatham County Moms for Liberty. Winger told the News + Record she is not a member of Moms for Liberty, but the local chapter’s website has encouraged voters to support Winger.
Winger also received a $1,000 donation from a Cary resident Jesse Thomas, whose address is outside the county and also has a history of donations to the N.C. Republican Party. Two other out-of-county donors, including another from South Carolina, also contributed $500 each to her campaign. Several other individual contributors put Winger’s total donations at $4,850 through quarter two from 15 donors.
Current reports only show donations through June 30. Campaign finance reporting deadlines for the third quarter of the election cycle, which would provide donations through Oct. 22, will be filed Nov. 1. The News + Record asked Winger for updated donation reports prior to the reporting deadline, but Winger declined to provide those documents.
Turner has also received donations totaling $4,250 to date; the most recent report she provided, dated Sept. 22, indicates 33 individual donors. The largest single donation to Turner was $250, which several donors gave; among her donors are Diana Hales, a Chatham County commissioner, who gave $100. Turner told the News + Record there were also several online contributions to her campaign that totaled $700, which have not yet been logged in official reports.
None of the donors to Turner’s campaign came from outside the state. She said one donation came from a Greensboro resident, which came after the report she sent.
Incumbents Gary Leonard and Jane Allen Wilson, both seeking re-election, told the News + Record they were not accepting donations this election cycle. Leonard said he directed potential donors to give contributions to Turner’s campaign instead.
Winger believes parents in the county have lost trust in the school board because of decisions board members made during the pandemic. She is seeking the seat to gain that trust back. Winger said part of that broken trust is also because “special interest groups” have gained too much influence in school politics, which she believes have come at the cost of parent input.
These groups, which Winger did not specify, are “attempting to force topics on children that some parents find offensive or inappropriate,” she said. Winger also said these groups were prioritized by the board and caused teachers and staff to be “ignored and shut-out” from board decision-making processes.
Turner refutes many of those claims of broken trust. She said she is proud of the way the board and the district are inclusive of all stakeholders. She said in the last term, communication between the board and community members has been especially good because of increased surveys, phone calls and email memos to gather input from community members.
“Everything we consider doing is sent in survey form to all stakeholders to gather their input,” Turner said. “The information is also put on our website, or a written communication is sent out, in English and in Spanish.”
She praised the new superintendent for his focus on communication and relationship building, which she said led to a level of communication she had not seen in previous iterations of the board.
Critical Race Theory — an academic framework taught at undergraduate and graduate levels that examines the social construction of race and how racism is embedded into legal and social systems — has become a hot-button issue in this election after recent reports of diversity and equity training for CCS staff circulated online, with some false claims that CRT was being taught in classrooms here.
Winger previously called the information “bombshell news” because it included information about the training from what she called a “pro-CRT non-profit.” Teachers and staff from CCS have repeatedly told the News + Record and said in public forums that the training was nothing out of the ordinary that the district does not teach CRT.
Current school policy does allow parents to opt their children out of objectionable school material.
Turner said parents have a right to supervise their children, but not in the classroom.
“There have been parents, over time, who have sought to change the paradigm and arbitrarily upend educational patterns through various means,” Turner said.
She pointed to federal legislation that established a teacher’s right to dictate curriculum in public schools including Brown v. Hot, Sexy and Safe Productions (1995) and Leebaert v. Harrington (2003). These court cases, Turner believes, are the legal basis for why the “parents’ rights” platform is not a viable political platform.
“Race, sexuality and gender, in any form accepted by the majority of people as a ‘norm,’ unavoidably plays a role in nearly all literature and all history,” Turner said.
Turner has been endorsed by the Chatham County Association of Educators, the local teachers’ union. The group also endorsed the other incumbent candidates — Leonard and Wilson.