For many viewers, the image that Buncombe County school board candidate Kenneth Greg Parks posted on his Facebook page captured the central message of his campaign.
In its center is a black, claw-like hand extending from a sleeve made of the familiar rainbow stripes symbolizing gay rights. The gnarled claw reaches downward toward an iconic depiction of a traditional family.
From above, a larger, white hand seizes the claw at its wrist, protecting the family. A caption by the artist, Robert Camp, reads: “I respect how you want to live your life, but I do not accept that you impose your ideas by manipulating the little ones.”
Parks, who is seeking the Buncombe school board seat in the Erwin High School district, recently posted the image and urged supporters to share it, adding his own comment: “I stand by my beliefs … Please share I do not believe that any kind of sexuality or gender ideology belongs in our schools.”
Some viewers were shocked. “Incredibly racist and inappropriate,” one person commented.
Some were supportive: “A conservative wanting to help our schools and Children.”
These sharply opposing views in a normally staid local election emphasize how deeply the ideological divide characterizing the nation’s culture wars has penetrated American civic life. Feelings among the candidates are so strong that two Buncombe County school board candidates at the last minute refused to attend a public forum to face their opponents, citing fears for their own safety.
“Both sides agree that we want to support students,” said Soren Pedersen, a political science student at UNC-Asheville who is following the Buncombe school board campaigns. “But I don’t want people there who will activate hate and fear to gain positions of power and not focus on the community.”
Voters who live in areas served by Asheville City Schools cannot vote in the Buncombe County school board elections. Voters who live in areas served by Buncombe County schools will elect candidates to represent the Enka, Erwin and Reynolds districts. Early voting is under way in Buncombe County and will continue until Nov. 5. In-person voting is Tuesday, Nov. 8.
From boring to bombastic
Until this year, and with few exceptions in recent history, school board campaigns in Buncombe County and elsewhere tended to be placid affairs. Few candidates gained public attention and elections were settled by a relative handful of voters, rarely more than 10 percent of eligible voters in any jurisdiction.
“The path to save the nation is very simple – it’s going to go through the school boards.”— Stephen Bannon, right-wing podcaster and strategist for ex-President Donald Trump
“[T]here has been a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff who participate in the vital work of running our nation’s public schools.”— U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, Oct. 4, 2021
Once elected, board members labored in relative obscurity at polite, sleep-inducing meetings and were re-elected time after time, typically without opposition. They hired superintendents, reviewed capital budgets, approved equipment and land purchases, donned hard hats to be photographed at school construction projects, and left the day-to-day decisions to the professional staff and classroom teachers.
But that was before firebrands like Republican advisor Steve Bannon mustered angry conservatives to attack; before the pandemic-induced stresses on parents and teachers; before school shutdowns and virtual learning; before mandatory mask-wearing and widespread textbook banning, before transgender athletes, and before politicians redefined the slang word “woke” to be a pejorative.
School board meetings now produce furious debates around esoteric terms like critical race theory (CRT), social emotional learning (SEL), bathroom usage, locker rooms, the left-leaning 1619 Project (a New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning study of how slavery’s legacy impacted and shaped the nation’s history) and its conservative rival, the 1776 Report (a “patriotic” version of that history commissioned by the Trump White House).
Armed deputy sheriffs now control public access to Buncombe County’s school board meetings. One session in 2021 turned ugly when a deputy, citing a pandemic policy to limit access to the meeting room, blocked anti-masking protesters from entering. Some of the protesters became so enraged they claimed a “sovereign right” to abolish the board and install members of their choosing. The board ignored them, but the insurrectionists became stars on Skyline News, a right-wing YouTube program.
“In the past, school board races usually had the teachers’ union candidates going up against the chamber of commerce’s candidates,” Doug Kronaizl, an analyst with the election-tracking service Ballotpedia, told Asheville Watchdog. “Campaigns now appear to be backed by national organizations that do candidate coaching.”
Since 2021 and with Donald Trump’s backing, this coaching has encouraged like-minded candidates to employ the rhetoric of the culture war where fear and threats battle with logic and discussion, Kronaizl said.
Three conflict issues
In the Buncombe County campaign, as across the nation, the focus is heavily on three “conflict” issues, according to the Ballotpedia analyses: the role of race in education, sex and gender, and the local school administration’s policies during the pandemic, usually around remote learning, vaccinations and mask mandates.
The issue of race emerges most often in charges that students are being force-fed the concepts of critical race theory, which critics claim shames white students for the historic systemic discrimination against Black Americans and other minorities. Issues of sex and gender frequently are tied to a curriculum called Social Emotional Learning (SEL), which fosters empathy for victims of discrimination, including LGBTQ people, and which critics say has no place in early primary grades.
The third issue, according to Kronaizl, is a catch-all to include criticism of educational policies adopted during the pandemic. Although schools now have reopened and such policies as vaccinations and mask-wearing have been lifted, bitterness over the mandates lingers and is morphing into a vague demand for “parental rights.”
Candidates vow to ban books
The use of these education-related issues extends far beyond school board races. Critical race theory — widely known by its acronym CRT — is a topic most often taught in graduate law schools to discuss the lingering effects of racial discrimination in legal systems and government policies. But it has become right-wing code for teaching history that includes criticisms of the enslavement of Black people, Jim Crow laws, economic and social barriers to equality, and criminal justice laws, among other acknowledgments of historical wrongdoing and discrimination against minorities.
At least as provocative are Republican-led allegations that Democrats favor “woke ideologies,” another code for programs that support gay and transgender students. Leading these attacks has been North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Republican who, in addition to calling gay and transgendered people “filth” and straight people “superior,” proposes banning from school libraries several books written by, or sympathetic to, gay and trans people.
Parks, the Buncombe candidate, has embraced Robinson’s book-banning list and commented on his campaign website: “We must stand against this in Buncombe County and that will only happen by replacing board members in 2022. I can assure you if elected this material will not be in Buncombe County schools.”
Allegations of violence and threats
Perhaps not since the civil rights era and the violence surrounding desegregation in the south and forced busing in the north, have campaigns for school-board control generated such bitterness and so many threats of violence, real or imagined.
The current Buncombe board race is no exception. In early October an African-American business organization in Asheville called Black Wall Street planned a forum where voters could hear from all the competing Buncombe County school board candidates. Although these offices are nonpartisan, all the candidates are aligned with either the Republican or Democratic parties and they campaign as slates.
Four of the six Buncombe County school board candidates agreed to attend: two Democrats, Kim Plemmons and Rob Elliot; and two Republicans, Parks and Sara Disher Ratliff. It would have been the first time that any of the opposing candidates met in a public forum. (The remaining candidates, Republican-backed Kim Poteat, a home-schooling advocate, and Democrat-backed Judy Lewis, the race’s only incumbent seeking reelection, weren’t scheduled to attend).
The program was co-sponsored by the Mountain Xpress newspaper, which promoted it widely.
One day before the forum, Parks posted the clawed-hand image on his campaign’s Facebook page. The posting unleashed a social media explosion between backers of the two sides and, some allege, a torrent of threats from Parks’s backers against the Democrats.
Just hours before the forum was to begin, Democrats Plemmons, seeking the Erwin district seat, and Rob Elliot, seeking the Reynolds seat, announced they would boycott the forum, leaving the sponsors without the planned debate. The two claimed, without providing evidence, that they and some supporters feared violence would erupt.
Plemmons released a statement saying: “I will not be a part of an event that could be unsafe for me or those in attendance. I feel this event could have turned into something that would be detrimental to my community and the school system that I proudly support.”
Elliot was less direct. He told Asheville Watchdog in an email that he chose not to attend because he disagreed with it being framed as a race between two party slates. While Elliot is correct that the school board offices are nonpartisan, the candidates have presented themselves to voters as members of competing three-person teams, each backed by their respective party executive committee.
Unaware of the controversy that his posting had caused, Parks and Disher Ratliff attended and were surprised to find they had the platform to themselves. They enthusiastically participated in lighthearted banter with moderator Aisha Adams and appeared unruffled by the few sharply worded questions posed to them by some in the audience.
Among these was elementary-school art teacher Lissa Pedersen, who confronted Parks directly about his allegations of CRT “indoctrination” of students.
‘We. Do. Not. Teach. CRT. ’
“We do not teach CRT in Buncombe County schools,” Pedersen said, repeating the sentence three times, each word slowly and with rising volume. “We don’t do that. We don’t.”
She continued, her gaze locked on Parks, who listened impassively behind the speakers’ table, “We don’t teach divisive things … We don’t make any child feel guilty. We want inclusion. We don’t want anyone to feel excluded.
“It hurts my heart to be told we are doing such things.”
In a response, Parks obfuscated his widely expressed view: “No one says CRT or hate is being taught in our schools. What I am saying is that there is a possibility that it will be. What are we going to do to prevent that?” he said.
Disher Ratliff dodged the issue, telling the audience that nowhere in her campaign positions has she mentioned CRT, nor does she raise it when speaking with voters. Her focus has been on parental engagement with board policies, the need for technological innovation in school administration, having law enforcement officers at every school when children are present, and support for special-needs students like two of her own children.
When one person in the audience chastised her indirectly for aligning her campaign with Parks and his extreme positions, she offered no response.
Status quo versus ‘woke ideology’
The three Democrats have been endorsed by the Buncombe County Association of Educators and the independent teachers’ union. They are running on platforms notable for their lack of specifics, an apparent endorsement of the status quo. All three declined to be interviewed for this article.
Two of the three Republicans, Poteat and Disher Ratliff, have maintained low profiles and largely avoided engaging in the culture war rhetoric. Poteat leans heavily on such “parental rights” themes as “freedom to choose,” the basics of education, and “moral values left to parents at home.” She emphasizes her years as a parent of eight, a foster parent to more than 30 children, a religious leader, and an advocate of home schooling.
Disher Ratliff says she will introduce greater transparency in board policy-making, including requiring its meetings to rotate among different locations every month so as to be more accessible to the public and parents. She generously praises the teachers and administrators with whom she has dealt, particularly in their assistance to her children with special needs. “But,” she says, “it can be better.”
Parks, a father of twin girls, cites scripture and culture-war talking points with fluency and fervor, often with a good humor that belies the messages he posts on social media. In addition to pushing unfounded claims of CRT “indoctrination” and promising to ban books, he has accused the school system of hiring as teachers “men who wear skirts.”
“Let’s start cleaning house and making our school system a safe and education-focused institution instead of the woke ideology that is being pushed now,” he wrote on his campaign Facebook page.
In a Facebook post Oct. 13, Parks posted a photo of his opponent, Kim Plemmons, in a group of mostly Democratic Party candidates, circling her face in red. “It’s no secret,” Parks then wrote, “that many of these candidates not all, but many do support and promote the following agendas” — removing constitutional rights, open drug use, defunding the police, supporting Antifa, critical race theory “and other curriculums that create division,” vaccine and mask mandates, and “LGBTQ agendas in our schools.”
He seemed surprised when asked if these posts could motivate supporters to threaten his opponents. He vehemently disputed suggestions that this has been the case and characterized them as nothing more than his views on educational matters.
“I have my opinion. That’s OK. You have your opinion. That’s OK,” he replied. “How can we sit down and have a conversation about that?”
Yet some of his critics believe that Parks’s social-media posts in fact have stirred supporters to threaten his critics, although evidence of that is unclear. One of those is incumbent school board member Amy Churchill.
She told Asheville Watchdog that her college-age daughter received a threatening, anonymous phone call from one Parks supporter. Churchill wrote on her Facebook page that Parks was “a pig who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the school system.” She said she also has experienced “lots of harassing” and added: “I don’t think he realizes just how dangerous his comments can be.”
After the recent forum, art teacher Lissa Pedersen sought out Parks and privately berated him for posting the image of the black hand threatening the cut-out family. She told him it was derived from a Nazi poster intended to stoke antisemitism, and that this one stoked anti-Black and anti-gay sentiment.
Pedersen told The Watchdog later that she doubted she changed Parks’s mind, nor did she think complaints from people like her would deter the anti-school board attacks from Parks’s like-minded supporters.
“I don’t know if [Parks] is even aware that what he is doing might be the catalyst for things that are happening,” she said. “I don’t know if he’s aware that rhetoric can actually become action.”
[Editor’s note: This article was updated to include a photo of the slate of candidates endorsed by Democrats, and to correct the spelling of candidate Kim Poteat’s last name.]
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Tom Fiedler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter and former executive editor of The Miami Herald. He lives in Asheville. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.