Districting is prickly for Wake school board

STAFF WRITERApril 19, 2011 

  • The League of Women Voters and Great Schools in Wake have been hosting public meetings to present the draft districts they have drawn up and to acquaint voters with the process, which takes place every 10 years after a federal census.

    Comments will be collected and presented to the Wake County school board.

    The third of those meetings is set to take place from 4 to 7 tonight at Cameron Village Library, 1930 Clark Ave., Raleigh.

— Dividing Wake County's 900,000 residents into nine roughly equivalent school-board districts may sound like a simple math exercise, at first.

But Wake's addition of 286,000 unevenly distributed residents since 2000 - plus a plethora of political calculations - means that this year's school-board redistricting process will have several unprecedented wrinkles:

County elections officials have never had to deal with such large raw numbers of new residents. To balance high-growth area such as District 8, which includes Apex and has nearly 119,000 residents, planners will have to redistribute tens of thousands of people to areas such asCary's District 9, which has 72,000. Each district is supposed to contain roughly 100,000 people.

Some precincts have grown so populous that they have to be divided, Wake County Board of Elections Director Cherie Poucher said.

Take precinct 20-02, on the western edge of the county and containing about 12,000 people. It's likely to be sliced into five pieces, known as voting tabulation districts. Polling places should have 3,000 or fewer residents for maximum efficiency and to avoid long lines.

The Wake Board of Commissioners would have to foot the bill for new voting machines, poll workers and other expenses of new polling places. County ManagerDavid Cooke said Monday that the Board of Election's request will become part of the ongoing budget process.

Through quirks in the elections process - in which races for four or five of the nine seats take place every two years on a staggered basis - thousands of voters may be shut out of voting in two consecutive school-board elections, and thousands of others may get to vote in two in a row.

For example, if a person who lives in District 8, which didn't vote last fall, gets redistricted into District 9, which is on an off-year this fall, he or she is simply be out of luck. There's no prohibition under the law against such situations, Poucher said.

This year's guidelines drawn up by the school board recommend, but do not mandate, that districts shouldn't pit incumbents against each other. School board Chairman Ron Margiotta, for one, thinks representing voters should come before protecting any individual officeholder.

How to learn more

The actual process is being conducted by Raleigh's Shanahan Law Group, whose members have been resolutely closemouthed about their progress with the process. Given the contentious atmosphere surrounding many of the board's actions, the redistricting will be closely weighed for its effect on the five seats that will be voted on in the fall.

"All the conflict that's been going on with the school board has really made me try to educate myself about all of this," said Stephanie Enders, a Cary resident who was attending a redistricting event in Apex last week.

The event was sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Great Schools in Wake, which have developed what they call a benchmark plan that shows one approach to redistricting.

Betty Ellerbee, a member of the League of Women Voters, says it's a knotty job to create equal districts that don't break up cities or towns and that maintain rough ethnic balance.

Winners and losers

According to estimates by the two nonprofits, about 50,000 people will likely be moved into a new school board district.

Uneven growth across the county means Debra Goldman could gain nearly 30,000 voters in her Cary district, while Margiotta will likely lose about 20,000.

Chris Malone in Eastern Wake and John Tedesco in Garner will both probably lose voters, while Carolyn Morrison in her mostly inside-the-Beltline district will gain voters, and numbers of voters will remain about the same in the districts occupied by Keith Sutton and Dr. Anne McLaurin.

The sooner the redistricting plan is presented by the Shanahan group and approved by the school board, the quicker the fall school board races will take place.

It's difficult to plan - for incumbents and challengers - when candidates don't know where they'll be campaigning or who their opponents will be.

Margiotta said he hoped to have a finished plan by May so the board can vote on it by June 24, as promised.

Candidates can file for the school board races beginning July 25.

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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