Guilford County voters going to the polls face only one choice when it comes to the Guilford County Board of Education: the one between at-large school board member Sandra Alexander, who is running for reelection, and Pat Tillman.
Tillman beat Alexander in the primary by a slim margin, winning 36,350 votes, or 41 percent, to Alexander's 33,883, or 38 percent.
Alexander, a longtime English professor and administrator at North Carolina A&T State University, has served one term on the school board. Tillman, the director of accounts for the Alderman Company marketing firm in High Point, is a US Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq War and has worked on political campaigns.
Tillman said he has been holding or attending events throughout the county, including Greensboro and High Point.
"I've gone to every event I've been invited to," he said. "I'm going to one at A&T; I've taken part in the educational leadership series. There's no way to know how it's going to shake out. But based on the way I came in in the primary, with five candidates, I feel good."
Alexander, asked where she had focused her campaigning, listed mostly locations in Greensboro and High Point – "meet and greets" in the cities, and a candidate forum at Bennett College, which she said Tillman didn't attend.
"I see an awful lot of support for myself out here, which is heartwarming, and I hope it pays out when it comes to the ballot box," she said. "Support from all parts of the county has been pouring in."
Tillman said his main goals as a school board member would be increasing the literacy rate among Guilford County students and working to close the "achievement gap" between white and black students, something school systems all over the country, including Guilford County Schools, are trying to do. He said he is worried by what he hears at Guilford Technical Community College, despite the high graduation rate claimed by Guilford County Schools.
"The instructors there say, 'Patrick, we have students coming in facing another year or two of remedial classes,'" he said. "So they tout that graduation rate, but it's misleading. We know we have kids walking down that aisle wearing a cap and gown who aren't ready."
Guilford County voters have approved almost $1 billion in school bonds since 2000, but Tillman said he doesn't expect them to approve more in the near future. He said he will focus on school construction if elected.
"The other thing is how we're going to be able to fund school construction without bond money," Tillman said. "Over the next five, six, 10 years, we're going to have to fund a lot of projects."
Tillman argued for public-private partnerships – having private companies build schools and lease them back to the school system – and "adaptive building re-use" – remodeling existing buildings and turning them into schools. Guilford County Schools has done so in the case of the Academy at Smith, which is the 40,000-square-foot former Oakwood Mobile Homes headquarters on Holden Road, hasn't done a particularly good job of making such conversions cost-efficient.
Tillman said that remodeling buildings can be done better.
"The advantage you have there is speed," he said. "Building new schools can take years. But if you do like they did in Wake County – they had a former bottling facility they turned into an elementary school – you get the benefit of efficiency and speed, and sometimes you save money, although not always."
Alexander, unlike Tillman, has a record as a school board member.
Alexander said she is proudest of her organizing support to get the school board to approve bowling as a sports option at Guilford County's 15 traditional high schools; serving on the committee to raise funds to start the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) Early College at NC A&T; acting as the school board liaison to career and technical education programs and making the motion to establish the medical curriculum Middle College at UNCG.
She said her biggest regret is that she wasn't able to get McNair Elementary School made a science and engineering magnet school. McNair, on Yanceyville Road, isn't any kind of school yet, as the project went far behind schedule and has been taken over by the contractor's bonding company.
"But I'm pleased that it at least has a technology focus, because that was what I wanted to accomplish," she said. "It's my understanding that there wasn't money in the budget for another magnet. But I'm sure the leadership will do what they have to do to make McNair a leader in elementary education."
Alexander has also made missteps as a school board member.
On July 24, 2012, Alexander, who is black, wrote a letter – also signed by school board members Amos Quick, Carlvena Foster and Deena Hayes, the three other black school board members – to Guilford County School Superintendent Mo Green, asking the school system to deposit money in the Greensboro branch of tiny Durham-based Mechanics and Farmers Bank, which they said was black owned.
The letter was an unusual and brazen attempt by school board members to lobby for one company and to bypass the process mandated by state law to determine where school boards keep taxpayer money. Green responded politely to the request, but ignored it. Guilford County Schools issues a periodic request for proposals (RFP) to banks wanting its business, and now keeps its main accounts with Wells Fargo & Co., the largest bank in America.
Tillman attacked the lobbying effort by Alexander and the others.
"Playing favorites with banks is not what we should be doing," he said. "There's a process for that. When the RFP comes open, we can open it up to minority banks throughout the Southeast if we want. But that's not the right priority."
Alexander said she is proud of her record over the last four years, and, if reelected, would like to see the school board create a middle college at High Point University.
"Basically it's been a good four years," she said. "I've learned a lot and I feel adequately equipped for a second term where I can really make what I hope will be impactful contributions."
Both Tillman and Alexander said they are campaigning heavily, and that relative partisan turnout may affect the outcome of their race.
Tillman said that, perhaps because of his experience as a Marine, he attacks anything with 100 percent effort.
"Voter turnout is the obvious answer, number one," he said. "Visibility and name recognition is a lot of it, because it's nonpartisan. Clearly, I'm going to have to get some votes that may or may not align with me as far as voter registration, but I think I've got that. The more I've talked to people, I think I've had a good response from people who are independents and registered Democrats. It's about ideas."
Alexander said she was disturbed by her primary loss to Tillman, but attributed it to a high primary turnout of Republicans in favor of Amendment One, a state referendum to ban gay marriage.
"What caused the lopsided result in the primary was that [Conservatives for Guilford County] C4gc and the Tea Party strategized to bring to the polls a specific target group that also supported Mr. Tillman – and that strategy was Amendment One. By and large, most of the people who came out in the primary were for Amendment One. It was the pool of voters who showed up for the primary – and I think we'll have a different pool for this election."
School board races are nonpartisan, but the at-large race pits Tillman, a Republican likely to carry the parts of Guilford County outside Greensboro and High Point, against Alexander, a Democrat likely to carry many of the urban precincts. Success in the race may depend on one candidate crossing city limits to appeal to voters in the other's core constituency.