When Rollie Sampson decided to run for the Moore County Board of Education, she knew she was wading into a firestorm.
In rural Moore County, the school board has become ground zero for divisiveness and debate. Monthly meetings and Facebook comment sections serve as the backdrop for heated exchanges between parents, community members and school board members themselves.
People have accused Sampson of being a liar, a leftist and a “woke liberal.” (Sampson considers herself an independent but typically votes Republican.) They’ve called her “Spartacus,” because she’s a veteran.
“I do think there is risk in running for office nowadays,” Sampson, who resigned from her job with Moore County Schools in order to run for school board, said. “Not just to your personal livelihood, but to your physical safety.”
Moore County, located in the Sandhills region of North Carolina, has a population of roughly 100,000 people, and they represent a diversity of interests. It’s close to Fort Bragg, so it has a sizable military population. Its largest town is the village of Pinehurst, home to a famed championship golf course and many retirees. In some parts of the county, the largest industry is health care; in others, it’s agriculture.
The school board has a total of seven members. Three of those seats are on the ballot in November.
“Those three positions could totally flip the makeup of the board,” board member Libby Carter told me. “Our board right now is incredibly split. We vote regularly along a 4-3 split, with three very, very right wing members and four very middle of the road members.”
That trifecta of right-wingers was elected together in 2020, riding the wave of pandemic politics. It includes David Hensley, a tactical weapons supplier who told a friend to bring back “severed ears” on Jan. 6; Robert Levy, a former chairman of the Moore County Republican Party; and Philip Holmes, a local funeral home director..
This year, Hensley, Levy and Holmes are campaigning on behalf of three more ultraconservative candidates with similar platforms. The stakes of the election are high: if just one of those candidates wins, they’ll have a majority on the school board.
‘THE TROPHY IS THE KIDS’
What’s happening in Moore County is, in many ways, a microcosm of the school board conflicts taking place across the country. Moral panics about Critical Race Theory and “grooming” have dominated the conversation, overshadowing real issues like student well-being and teacher shortages.
One GOP-endorsed candidate, Ken Benway, told The Pilot that “school boards across the country have become flashpoints where Judeo-Christianity and Marxism are facing off toe-to-toe, and only one is going to win. We’re hoping it’s going to be us … because the trophy is the kids. Whoever wins gets our kids.”
And therein lies the problem: it is no longer about education, at least not anymore. It is about control. This isn’t merely a disagreement about funding or policy, but a fundamental dispute over what — and who — our society should look like.
The board’s right-wing minority has pushed school administrators to remove “vulgar” books from school bookshelves, even when they aren’t even part of the curriculum — a move that legal experts warned could violate the First Amendment. They’ve shown contempt for equity initiatives, saying that minorities “tend to be less disciplined” and that making an effort to hire minority teachers is “a conscious effort to not hire the best.”
The overt politicization of school boards does not bode well for public education, or our country. Moore County, like most counties in North Carolina, is struggling to retain teachers. Its students, like most students, are still recovering from the impact of COVID — academically, behaviorally and emotionally. But rather than uniting behind a shared desire to address these issues, school board members are turning on each other, leaving the more than 12,000 students in Moore County Schools behind.
“We’re raising little people,” Sampson told me. “And I think that’s what we’re forgetting. The children have become political pawns right now. I feel like all I’m doing is talking political rhetoric.”
MOBILIZING FOR ‘WAR’
Since the pandemic, the right’s school board takeover strategy has become a highly coordinated effort. Elections that once flew completely under the radar have become among the most contentious on the ballot. While it’s sometimes sweetened as an issue of “parents’ rights” and “protecting students,” the right has made it clear, both to their supporters and their detractors, that they see themselves engaged in some kind of battle.
The Moore County Republican Party shared a photo in March of the Education First Alliance, a statewide parental rights organization, “inspiring Republicans to declare war on Leftist educators and their enablers in local and state government.” Two school board members can be seen in the photo.
“Imagine hearing that when you’re a staff member,” Sampson said, “and the people who are supposed to support you see you as an enemy combatant and have declared war on you.”
The Education First Alliance, whose board members include a former U.S. Army captain who led a group of protesters to Donald Trump’s rally on Jan. 6, regularly holds “Assertiveness Boot Camps” that train parents to become “confident and effective parental representative[s].”
The group wrote in an April Facebook post that it has “moles” in most teachers’ groups and will “pay $$ to those who are willing to expose others who threaten children & parents.” Its leaders have asked people to submit names to a public list of Moore County teachers who are turning children into “woke mindless drones,” including teachers who put their pronouns in their email signature.
Moore County is less of an outlier than a case study. This is happening, to some degree, in practically every county, but it’s smaller, more rural communities that most feel the effects. Good teachers are unfairly maligned, good leaders resign — all at the expense of the students.
Carter, a retired educator, has served for seven years as an at-large member and is the former chairperson of the board. Her seat is up for re-election this year. Though she loves serving on the school board, she chose not to run again.
“I have found that negative attacks, threats on my family, threats on my home, lies that have been told about me by some members of the far right are just impossible to live with,” Carter said. “And I’m not willing to continue to endure the stress upon my family and myself.”
This was the reality Sampson knew she would be facing if she chose to run. It was a reality she had to sit down and discuss with her family, because her decision could put them at risk, too. And though she tries her best not to engage with it, the vitriol still takes a toll.
“It’s been very personal. It’s very organized,” Sampson said. “They said they were at war with us, and they’re not joking.”
Paige Masten is a Charlotte-based opinion writer and member of the Editorial Board.
This story was originally published August 17, 2022 9:15 AM.