Chatham County’s Board of Education is set to remain the same after three incumbents won re-election to their seats last week — provided that Del Turner’s lead in the fiercely challenged Dist. 3 race holds up.
Results for that race, between Turner and challenger Jessica Winger, won’t become official until Thursday’s vote canvass. Meanwhile, Gary Leonard handily defeated challenger Tim Moore in Dist. 5 by taking 57% of the vote, and Jane Allen Wilson, running uncontested, won another term in Dist. 4.
With all precincts reporting on Election Day, Turner had a 462-vote lead, 1.35 percentage points over Winger. Unofficial results gave Turner 16,490 votes (48.46%) and Winger 16,028 (47.11%), leaving the possibility of a recount.
Turner, who has claimed victory in the contest, focused her campaign on finishing what she’s begun in previous terms on the board: increasing local subsidies for teachers, enhancing opportunities through the growth of AVID and ensuring a timely K-12 civics curriculum for all students.
The Dist. 3 incumbent candidate watched the results come in on Election Day from the Chatham Democratic Party office in Pittsboro. As the final precinct showed her ahead, she thanked her supporters for aiding her campaign.
“All of you who helped with this campaign are parents,” Turner said. “You had a vested interest, it was never about me. It was about protecting your kids.”
This is the first time in Turner’s 12 years on the school board she’s had to campaign so fiercely, she said. She added the parents of the district stepped up and supported her through the challenge.
“I feel very blessed,” Turner said. “But this election says something. When we know that there’s an existential threat to the way we live we all need to pick up a piece and talk about it. Don’t just leave it to me.”
Winger did not respond to requests from the News + Record for comment after the election. In a post to her campaign Facebook page last Thursday she said, “Today I am filled with overwhelming gratitude for my family, friends, teachers, and all in Chatham who have supported me in this campaign. I feel uplifted and inspired by each of you and your sincere devotion to our community, especially our children.”
Turner said the challenges facing education now are part of a larger struggle for democracy, both locally and nationally. Chatham Democratic Party Vice Chair Bill DeLano echoed those concerns at the watch party on Tuesday.
“There’s a moment where the things we see at a national level come to roost locally,” Delano said. “For whatever reason (Turner) became the lightning rod for that vile and vitriol that we saw on a national level. She didn’t deserve it and that is why I’m proud to lift her up tonight.”
The national issues Delano and Turner refer to are false claims surrounding Critical Race Theory (CRT) being taught in Chatham County Schools and the rise of “parents first” campaign narratives, which pushes for increased parental oversight in school curriculum — issues central to Winger’s and Moore’s platforms as they both called for increased transparency from the board.
The majority of voters rejected that messaging on Election Day.
“I just am extremely grateful that you all brought Del Turner and Gary Leonard back,” Wilson, who has served on the board with them for eigtht years, said. “We’ve worked so hard together and we have such a good board, administration and superintendent. I’m so thrilled we can continue to work on the schools and make them even better.”
Turner said she believes the victory means Chatham County cares about its children and that parents and other residents are satisfied with the work of the school board and its current make-up of members.
“We chose stability over chaos and confusion,” Turner said. “I’ll work on behalf of children no matter what.”
The Chatham school board races also saw the rise of the Moms for Liberty influence. 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. The local chapter endorsed Winger and Moore and played a role in actively promoting false claims that CRT was being taught and promote in Chatham County schools.
Winger denied being part of the organization despite members of her campaign team holding leadership positions in the organization and the campaign receiving substantial donations from Moms for Liberty members.
“Jessica and Tim fought hard and long, but regardless of the outcome, this battle has not ended,” Chatham’s Moms for Liberty chapter wrote in its newsletter Monday. “We have only just begun. There is much work to do and we have a large army of awakened parents behind us.”
Turner said she hoped voters would investigate claims about candidates more thoroughly in the future because of the rampant “misinformation” spread in this race.
“There was a lot of information that made it very obvious that my opponent was a liar,” Turner said. “She was misrepresenting herself, she was involved with people who really did not have the best interests of children at heart … I think people just need to make themselves better informed in the future.”
Winger did not respond to requests for comment.
Turner and Leonard each said their primary goal for next term is to continue the trajectory CCS is on to continue doing good things for children. Leonard added he wanted to work for a district that supported all students, faculty and staff.
“We’ll continue to work together to help our students be successful,” Leonard said. “We’re fortunate that Ms. Turner and Ms. Wilson were elected because I know they have been very instrumental in accommodating the common needs of the district and its leadership as we move CCS forward.”
Wilson, also at the Chatham Democrats’ watch party, said she was grateful the board could continue to build on its progress.
Leonard, who has served on the board since 2010, acknowledged the divided vote in this election, which he said reiterates the board’s need to focus on what’s best for the education of children in Chatham County.
If the narrow margin in the Dist. 3 race shrinks, it could trigger a recount once the results are finalized on Nov. 18. According to N.C. General Statute § 163-182.7, “a candidate shall have the right to demand a recount of the votes if the difference between the votes for that candidate and the votes for a prevailing candidate is not more than one percent (1%) of the total votes cast in the ballot item, or in the case of a multiseat ballot item not more than one percent (1%) of the votes cast for those two candidates.”
Winger would have until 5 p.m. on Nov. 21 to ask for a recount if the final results show the margin is within 1%. Winger’s campaign didn’t respond to questions whether she’d consider asking for a recount, but she did release a statement on her campaign Facebook page:
“In such a tight race, I feel duty-bound to make sure every last vote is counted,” the statement said. “Let us be patient as we await the final elections (canvass). I believe that as citizens of Chatham, we can expect the American political process to be played out fairly and through a well-established set of rules. Pray for our community and give patience in this democratic process.”
The post was accompanied by a copy of the N.C. general statute that outlines rules for a recount.
Turner maintains a 462-vote lead; according to the Chatham County Board of Elections, more than 250 ballots are still outstanding between provisional and absentee ballots.
Pandora Paschal, the director of the Chatham Board of Elections, said there are 154 provisional ballots still left to be counted. However, she said, “we have not researched those ballots to determine which ones will count and which ones will not count.”
Paschal said the board received absentee ballots through Monday, Nov. 14. All absentee ballots are counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day (Nov. 8). The total number of absentee ballots is still unclear, but “it is a lot,” Paschal said.
There won’t be a runoff in this race, so whoever gets the most votes once the numbers are finalized will be the winner. The Chatham County Board of Elections will hold its provisional supplemental meeting at 4 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17, at the Board of Elections Office (984 Thompson St., Pittsboro). The meeting will be live-streamed at meet.goto.com/782476981.