RALEIGH, N.C.—Intense national political forces were focused on a local school board runoff this week in North Carolina's capital as voters replaced tea party conservatives in a race that capped an acrimonious dispute over student busing and diversity in one of the country's largest school districts.
The campaign featured elements more commonly seen in races for higher offices: Big money from outside interest groups, opposition research and the close attention of the U.S. education secretary.
The contest in Wake County illustrated how the money and ideological battles that have riven Washington are filtering down to local elections, said David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University in Raleigh.
"It's sort of a trend that we're starting to see a lot more of in general," McLennan said. "You're seeing a lot more concerted efforts by both liberal and conservative groups to target their money on issues that they find important."
The battle in Raleigh was tied to busing.
After the Republican-backed board members were elected in 2009, they scrapped a decade-old classroom assignment plan that gave schools a racial mix and ensured they didn't become too heavily identified as either poor or rich. To achieve that mix, the plan included busing students.
The GOP-backed board's revised plan gave parents more say in letting their children attend schools near their homes.
The board's decision to scrap the focus on diversity sparked outrage, protest marches, arrests, a federal civil rights complaint by the NAACP, a threat to the county high schools' accreditation and an outsized flood of campaign cash for a local election.
Although the school board races are nominally nonpartisan, the candidates' party affiliations are known. And the parties weren't shy about jumping into the race.
Parties and interest groups on the right and left spent at least $500,000 to attack Democratic-aligned incumbent Kevin Hill and challenger Heather Losurdo, the News & Observer of Raleigh reported.
Democrat-backed candidates had taken four school board contests in elections last month, but Hill initially fell 51 votes short of the margin needed to avoid Tuesday's runoff.
On Tuesday, Hill defeated Losurdo by nearly 1,000 votes, giving Democrats a 5-4 majority on the board.
Hill, a former Wake County teacher and principal, said when he won his first race in 2007 he raised just $6,000. At the end of last month, Hill reported raising more than $25,000 in his suburban Raleigh district.
Losurdo reported raising more than $82,000 by the end of October, a record for a Wake school board race.
Meanwhile, a liberal advocacy group not connected to Hill's campaign dug up information that Losurdo, 40, had once worked in a New Orleans strip club and had declared bankruptcy while in her 20s.
This week's election appears to close a chapter in the Tea Party-inspired change brought to the school district of 146,000 students. The district is among the country's 20 largest, according to the National Center for Education statistics.
"We believe the beginning of change in the power configuration of the school board is a small victory for people of goodwill in the battle to keep pushing forward for the common good," said state NAACP President Rev. William Barber.
He was among several people arrested in demonstrations against the GOP-led plan, which he called an effort to re-segregate public schools nationwide with Wake County as the model.
Comedian Stephen Colbert weighed in, mocking the school board's conflict over scrapping the diversity program.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the decision to end the old student policy "troubling" in a January letter to the editor in The Washington Post, but said he hoped it would spur a nationwide conversation. During a visit to Raleigh late last month, Duncan said the Democratic gains on the school board appeared "very positive."
Duncan was traveling Wednesday and not available for comment, a spokeswoman said.
When the old diversity plan was scrapped, it led to resignations by some district administrators and a chance for the GOP-led school board members to hire a new superintendent. They picked former Army general Tony Tata, who proved not to be the fire-breathing conservative some feared and delivered a new assignment plan that didn't entirely dump diversity as a goal.
As a result, Hill and other Democratic-backed candidates said they don't plan to scrap Tata's new model and go back to the pre-2009 status quo, with its reliance on busing whether some parents wanted it or not.
Even with the pre-election hoopla, turnout in Hill's district was about 30 percent, which was more than normal but didn't demonstrate a wave of angry voters, said Republican political consultant Carter Wrenn, who helped guide conservative Sen. Jesse Helms to three re-election victories
"There's been a lot of controversy on the school board and it could be people are just reacting to the general controversy, and saying let's quiet this down a little bit," Wrenn said.