Keith Sutton

Edgecombe County native Keith Sutton, a candidate for state superintendent of public instruction, talks with students Tuesday at Edgecombe Community College.

TARBORO — Five of the seven candidates running for state superintendent of public instruction came to Edgecombe County on Tuesday to articulate their positions and meet with local students in advance of this year’s primary race.

With current State Superintendent Mark Johnson, a Republican, making a bid for lieutenant governor, his seat has attracted a lot of interest. Five Democrats and two Republicans are vying for the chance to influence the state’s educational policies at the highest possible level.

Five of these candidates participated in Tuesday’s Rural Student Town Hall meeting Tuesday at the Center for Innovation on the Tarboro campus of Edgecombe Community College.

One of those candidates is an Edgecombe County native who now serves on the Wake County Board of Education. Democrat Keith A. Sutton graduated from SouthWest Edgecombe High School and now lives in Raleigh, where he owns an education consulting firm.

Sutton said he has long been interested in education.

“I have been a school board member in Wake County for 10 years and I am serving my second term as chairman. We are the largest system in North Carolina and the 16th largest in the country,” Sutton said. “I also taught classes in Human Resource Development at Edgecombe County College many years ago. This was mainly an adult education class teaching job-seeking skills.”

Catherine Truitt, a Republican contender for the post, also lives in Raleigh. She has a wide and varied background in education and in working with education police at the state level.

“I taught for 10 years and was a turn-around coach in public schools for three years,” Truitt said. “Then I moved into the policy space. I was Gov. (Pat) McCrory’s education advisor. When he didn’t get re-elected, I went to work for President (Margaret) Spellings at the UNC system. Now I lead a nonprofit national university, Western Governor’s University in North Carolina.”

Democrat James Barrett lives in Chapel Hill. He serves on the school board there and works for Lenovo, where he leads large, high-performing teams, he said.

“I have been eight years on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board and been doing a lot of good policy work there,” Barrett said. “To make a difference in our schools, we need a focus on students and using policy levers the best we can. But we also need to be effective in doing the work. And I think I bring that leadership capability to the table.”

Craig Horn, who will be running against Truitt in the upcoming Republican primary, resides in Matthews and has served as a representative for District 68 in the General Assembly since 2010. Horn feels his policy experience will benefit him as the state superintendent of public instruction, especially since much of that experience has centered on education.

“I spent eight years in the military right out of high school,” Horn said. “But since coming to the General Assembly in 2010, for eight years, I have been chairman of the Appropriations for Education committee and also have been chairman of the Education Policy Committee. I am also House chairman for the Joint Legislation Education Oversight Committee. I am just looking for a better way to work for kids and to help move the needle.”

Michael Maher, a Democrat from Raleigh, also is running for the office. He has a strong background, not only as a K-12 teacher, but also as an education professor.

“I am a former high school science teacher in Forsythe and Wake counties,” Maher said. “Then I spent four years on the faculty of St. Augustine’s College as an instructor in teacher education. For the last 12 years, I have been the assistant dean at N.C. State University in the College of Education.”

Two other Democratic candidates, Jen Mangrum of Greensboro and Constance “Lav” Johnson of Charlotte, also are running in the upcoming primary but were unable to attend Tuesday’s event.

Though the election for state superintendent of public instruction is based on party affiliation, Truitt noted that party affiliations do not seem to matter as much in this race.

“I would advocate that this role be appointed and not elected,” Truitt said. “As you saw, there is not a lot of difference between what we all support. Charter schools are the biggest issue, but there are so much bigger fish to fry in education.”

During an exercise at Tuesday’s event that forced candidates to choose a stance on seven different issues, the candidates tended to agree more than disagree on most issues, despite party affiliations. All five candidates strongly agreed on four of the seven issues: lack of adequate state funding for education, the need to change the current formula for school performance grades, the need for increased calendar and spending flexibility at the local level and the need to meet the myFutureNC attainment goal of 2 million 25-to-44–year-old people with a high-quality credential or college degree by 2030.