By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on April 16, 2022
Two candidates are trying to take a different route to the Dare County Board of Education in this fall’s upcoming election — by both running as unaffiliated candidates and running as a team. There will be no May 17 primary races for the three open seats on the board.
Marie Russell, a Kitty Hawk resident with three children in the Dare County Schools, plans to run for the District 3 seat currently held by Margaret Lawler, who is leaving the board.
Jessica Fearns, a Colington resident with one child in the schools, hopes to secure the District 2 seat on the board, currently held by Joe Tauber, who has also chosen not to seek re-election.
Both Russell and Fearns – who are running as a team — must collect about 1,200 signatures, or signatures from 1.5 percent of the county’s registered voters by May 17 to be included on the ballot. They told the Voice that they each need about 500 more signatures.
If they get on the ballot, Russell will challenge Republican Matt Brauer for the District 3 seat and Fearns will go up against Republican Ron Payne for the District 2 seat. In District 1, current Board Member Frank Hester is not seeking re-election and Republican Barry Wickre is running unopposed in that race.
During an interview with the Voice, Russell and Fearns said they decided to run as a team because they have the same ideas, both have children in the schools and both substitute teach in the school system. Both Fearns and Russell pointed to improving teacher retention as a major issue, as well as improving technology in the district and “bridging the gap” between political parties.
One major backdrop to school board elections in Dare County is they used to be non-partisan, with candidates running without party affiliations. But in 2017, the North Carolina State Legislature passed a law mandating that school board elections become partisan campaigns in Dare and a handful of other counties.
One other political reality in Dare County these days is that it is very challenging to win a local race running as a Democrat. That was borne out in 2020, when Bea Basnight, a well-respected and popular Democrat who had been a teacher and was the chair of the board of education at the time, was beaten by a lesser-known candidate, Republican challenger Carl Woody II.
Russell, 46, is the CEO of a digital media marketing company and also a travel agent. She is a previous OBX Children at Play Board Member and is currently a member of the First Flight Middle School (FFMS) Improvement Team and president of the FFMS PTO.
Fearns, 37, is a local real estate agent and with her husband, owns a small business that sells products at local farmers markets. She is a former president and current board member of OBX Mommy and Me, a member of the First Flight Elementary School (FFES) Improvement Team, and a member of the FFES PTO.
Although registered as a Democrat, Fearns said she is committed to get the signatures needed to run unaffiliated because she feels passionately that politics doesn’t have a place on the school board.
“I’m going to get the 1,200 signatures and go at it that way so that I can leave my party affiliation behind and run unaffiliated,” Fearns asserted. “A big reason that I am trying to run is because I feel like politics has overridden this board of education and it’s dividing people in our community.”
“I would like to see someone that kind of walks a more moderate line…so that we can focus on the things that matter – teacher retention, updating technology, bringing more support staff in and try not to be so distracted by some of those polarizing subjects that nationally are dividing people. We need to get together on the things that everybody can agree that we want, happy teachers, happy kids and safe schools,” she added.
Russell, who is registered as unaffiliated, said that she decided to run during the COVID pandemic. “I felt that would have been the time when parents needed to be on the board making decisions for our kids to go to school or not go to school,” Russell said. “I think that was a really big decision to be made by people who didn’t fully understand the ramifications of kids not being in school.”
On the subject of teacher retention, Russell said that there needs to be more incentives to get teachers to stay in Dare County. “With other counties and states increasing the base pay for teachers, if we cannot meet that base pay, they’re not going to work here,” she asserted. “If they cannot work here, then our kids suffer. So we have to find a way to get them to stay and we have to find a way to get new teachers. It really needs to be investigated on how we can improve.”
For her part, Fearns added that teachers are overworked and not adequately compensated. “Their plate is too full, there are too many state-mandated requirements for training and standardized tests…they’re so bogged down. I think they realize [that] ‘I could be doing a lot less work for this amount of money by going into another profession,’ and they leave the profession.”
Russell said that if elected, she would be a voice for parents as “a parent on the board who is representing everyone. That’s my goal, as well as prioritizing teachers.”