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Election Day 2020: ‘We have to put students at the center’

Mebane: I tell people across North Carolina I am in the business of hope. This was my experience on Election Day 2020.

As I pulled up to the T.C. Henderson Elementary School of Science and Technology in Lake Toxaway in Transylvania County, three students were raising the flags of the United States and North Carolina.

As soon as I walked into the first and second grade combined classroom, the students turned to face our flag to say the Pledge of Allegiance. The words “with liberty and justice for all” resounded on Election Day 2020.

In Transylvania County, according to the N.C. State Board of Elections, there are 6,345 registered Democrats; 8,687 registered Republicans; and 11,316 unaffiliated voters. But, as far as I can tell, the people are more music and mountains than anything else.

Meet teacher Kimberly Geer. “You guys have already learned more about the election process than a lot of people your age,” she says to her students.

Kimberly Geer teaches the election process to first and second-graders. Mebane Rash/EducationNC

Geer said, “It’s really important to talk about how the election process works because its part of being a responsible citizen.”

Her students have been learning what it means to be a citizen and that it comes with rights but also with responsibilities.

Students on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020. Mebane Rash/EducationNC

They have learned how to vote, how old you have to be to vote, and why it’s important.

Last week, they had the opportunity to conduct a schoolwide mock election.

Today, the students are mapping out which states they would campaign in if they were running for president. The campaign trails are drawn by the students in code for an Ozobot to then follow — it’s a science and technology school after all.

“You are never too young to … start building that sense of pride and building a citizen of the United States,” said Geer. Her outfit is red, white, and blue, and she has drawn the American flag on her face mask.

And then Geer turns her attention to making sure the students understand how the electoral collage works. In case you need a refresher.

One thing is clear from this lesson in civics: the students felt strongly that adults needed to get out and vote.

Alex: I tell Mebane I’m in the business of journalism. Here is what you need to know about the race for superintendent of public instruction.

By now, you probably know that Democrat Roy Cooper will be governor for another four years and Republican Mark Robinson will be lieutenant governor.

You may also know that Republican Catherine Truitt will be the next state superintendent of public instruction. Democrat Jen Mangrum conceded the race on Wednesday morning, according to her campaign manager.

A post on Mangrum’s Facebook reads: “The night didn’t turn out as I hoped but I am deeply grateful for every person who voted for me, passed out lit for me, made phone calls, donated, etc.”

Mangrum was ahead early on Tuesday night, but as more votes were tabulated, Truitt began to whittle away at her lead. Ultimately, as of publication, the State Board of Elections website had Truitt winning with 51.4% of the vote with 100% of precincts reporting.

Tuesday morning, before we knew any of that, I met Mangrum at a polling place in southeast Raleigh: Macedonia New Life Church. She greeted voters with what I assume was a smile — we all wore our masks — and bumped elbows while telling them her name and what position she was running for.

She spent a lot of time chatting with a man and a woman who I thought were poll workers. She thought they were, too. She asked them what they thought was needed in North Carolina education. They talked about things like the need for higher teacher pay and the important role schools play in child nutrition.

And after what must have been a half an hour, the two told Mangrum they had to go. It was at that point we all realized they had only come to the precinct to vote. They stayed to talk to her just because they wanted to. They seemed to enjoy getting to interact with one of the candidates on the ballot.

Jen Mangrum, in red, talks with voters at  Macedonia New Life Church in southeast Raleigh on Election Day 2020. Alex Granados/EducationNC

Eventually Mangrum and Tyler Swanson, a special education teacher at Enloe High School who accompanied her to the church, left to go to another polling place. On the way out, I asked her what she learned from this campaign.

She said that running against Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, for his seat in 2018 taught her a lot.

“If you’re someone who’s never been engaged in politics other than voting and reading, you just don’t understand all the nuances,” she said.

She said there needs to be more people like professors and teachers stepping up to run for public office, but they need to know that they may not necessarily win the first time. Even so, she said they’ll learn a lot.

She also said she has gotten a better sense for how teachers feel.

“Teachers feel so devalued, disrespected, that people don’t understand or care what they go through or what they experience. And they don’t need a lot,” she said. “They’re not asking for a lot.”

She said Tuesday morning that no matter what happened, she’d gained from the experience.

“I think if I lose, I still have really expanded my world professionally and teachers’ worlds and know that we can make change,” she said.

Tuesday night, I talked with Truitt by phone and asked what it was like watching the results come in early and slowly change in her favor.

“As a first-time candidate, my team had prepared me to just sit tight and not make any assumptions until later on in the evening,” she said. “And that’s really what I was thinking.”

As to how she felt now that the results were in, she said it reminded her of when she was little and she would watch college basketball tournaments with her dad. After the game was won, the players would all cheer, but the coach would look serious. She remembers asking her dad why the coach was so serious, and she said her dad told her it was because the coach was thinking about what has to happen next. That’s what Truitt said she is doing.

“I’m very excited, but this is also very humbling,” she said.

And now that she secured the top education job in North Carolina, here is what she has to say to all stakeholders, whether they voted for her or not.

Catherine Truitt at an EducationNC student town hall.

“My message to voters is that aside from party — this is not a Democrat or Republican issue — we have to put students at the center,” she said.

Truitt said there is already a meeting on her calendar to meet with State Board members and talk about the future. The Board put meetings on both candidates’ calendars so that no matter who won, they could get started planning what is next, Truitt said.

EdNC will have more news on the local races that impact education, including county commissions and school boards, later this week.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.