Apparently Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was wrong when he said in his famous “I have a dream” speech of 1963: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Most of the people – both black and white – who spoke Monday night at the school board meeting and were advocating for the appointment of Seneca Rogers to fill the upcoming vacancy of Patsy Simpson, said, directly or indirectly, that skin color does matter.
In fact, it matters very much to them.
Rogers, who is black, should be appointed, they suggested, because he is black and he would be replacing Patsy Simpson, who is also black.
There are some rather significant differences between the two, notwithstanding their similar skin pigment.
Simpson has proven to be a popular board member who has been elected, by both black and white citizens, in four separate elections over the past 15 years.
Rogers, it is true, was the runner-up (placing fourth among six candidates on the ballot) in 2022. It should also be noted, as a practical matter, that Rogers was the only registered Democrat on the ballot last year for the ostensibly non-partisan school board.
Party loyalists urged voters to “single shot” for Rogers, avoiding any votes for other candidates, who were white or Republican, and many clearly did.
Still, he couldn’t muster enough votes to be in the top (i.e., elected) tier.
Rogers was also an unsuccessful candidate in 2020 – again as a runner-up, placing fifth for four open seats among 11 candidates on the ballot that year – and running far behind Simpson, who placed third that year.
We have often believed that an unsuccessful runner-up in an election deserves serious consideration should a vacancy occur subsequently on the same board.
And for that reason, we believe it is reasonable for Rogers to be considered. The closer to the election, the more reasonable it is to consider a runner-up, such as when one member is elevated. In municipal races, for instance, when a council member becomes mayor, it makes sense to revert to the next highest vote getter from the same election.
There are, however, exceptions to this logic.
It is not clear, for instance, whether Rogers would represent, or even seek to represent, the public at large, or whether he would be beholden to a small, highly partisan group, several of whose members were prominent Monday night in their advocacy for him.
It is also not necessarily fair for an incumbent board to give someone an advantage, after unsuccessful attempt(s) to be elected, because the appointee would become an incumbent – usually an advantage in most elections – in the next election.
Instead, there is a very strong argument to be made for two other outcomes: appointing a “caretaker” to hold the seat, with the understanding that he or she won’t seek a full term.
Mebane, for instance, took that approach after the 2019 municipal elections, in appointing Everette Greene, who had lost his city council seat that year, to fill out the two years remaining on then-mayor Ed Hooks’ council term when voters elected Hooks mayor.
(In full disclosure, Mebane’s council members used the runner-up method in 2022 when they appointed 2021 runner-up Katie Burkholder to a vacancy caused by the resignation of council member Patty Philipps.)
Similarly, Gibsonville’s aldermen decided to appoint former alderman Paul Dean to fill out the term of Paul Thompson who died unexpectedly last year. (In doing so, they skipped the actual runner-up from the 2021 election, Irene Fanelli, in favor of the fourth-place finisher, Dean.) We’re not sure whether Dean is merely a placeholder, but it certainly makes clear elected boards are not obligated to elevate the next highest vote-getter from the previous election.
A second option is simply to leave the seat vacant. Haw River’s town council took this option in 2020 when council members deadlocked 2-2 over who should fill a vacancy after Kelly Allen was elevated to that municipality’s mayor’s chair in the 2019 election.
We think another important consideration for the current school board is whether a new member will fit in and work with the existing members. Boards do not have to be monolithic in their thinking, but neither do they need to seek dissidents.
We see no reason why members should deliberately set out to bring onto their board someone whose intention from the outset is to be a rabble-rouser on any number of topics.
And, by the way, there is precedent for ultimate success for runner-up candidates even if the board skips appointing them.
Burlington’s Celo Faucette had that happen after the 2007 election. He had been runner-up in both 2007 and 2005, but the city council deadlocked 2-2 on appointing him to fill a vacancy caused by the elevation of Ronnie Wall to the mayor’s chair. Instead, he won on his own in 2009 and served two, four-year terms, before losing in the mayoral race in 2017 to then-mayor Ian Baltutis.
Frankly, we believe the school board has erred in starting even to entertain applicants at this early point – before Simpson’s actual resignation – and setting an application deadline a mere week after her vacancy is scheduled to occur.