Wake school board election map criticized

Wake Democrats see taint of politics; Republicans say lines are fair.

Staff WritersMay 10, 2011 

  • Tonight's hearing on the proposed Wake County school board redistricting maps will be held at 6 p.m. in the district's Central Administration Building at 3600 Wake Forest Road in Raleigh. For more information on the maps, visit www.wcpss.net/Board/ redistricting-2011 for more information on the maps.

— Wake County Democrats are criticizing proposed county school-board voting districts, saying the people who created the maps are unduly injecting politics into coming elections.

Republicans school board members, however, say the proposed districts are fair, and that there's no need to revise them.

"Anything we're for, they're against," said school board member Chris Malone. "They're professional against-ers."

Every 10 years, the school board uses the latest census data to redraw new election boundaries for the nine board seats. The boundaries are important because candidates can be voted on only by the people who live in their district.

The new maps will be put to use Oct. 11, when voters will decide on the five school board seats on the ballot.

This year's redistricting process is drawing more scrutiny than normal because of the ongoing controversy over the school board's change in student assignment policy since the 2009 elections.

Tonight, the school board will hold a public hearing on the new maps. A final vote could come as early as next Tuesday.

Mack Paul, chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party, said Monday that the redrawing of incumbent board member Dr. Anne McLaurin's district, which has historically included mostly inside-the-Beltline neighborhoods west of downtown, seems particularly politically motivated.

"We are concerned about the number of split precincts in her district, which indicates that there is some kind of predetermined outcome that they were looking for," Paul said.

McLaurin said Monday that she had been angered by the process, which she opted out of because it involved having a private law firm meet separately with a few board members at a time to draw new districts. She also said the proposed zones place goals such as keeping a 1 percent in size variance among districts ahead of principles such as preserving the geographic heart of the district.

"The redistricting that was done in my district really does change the core," McLaurin said.

If McLaurin runs for re-election in District 5 - she's leaning toward that - she will be campaigning in portions of Holly Springs and other areas for the first time.

Republican school board member John Tedesco said McLaurin's district was extended southward because her undersized Raleigh precincts aren't matching the county's population growth.

He said they couldn't extend her district northward or westward because those districts are also undersized, while expanding eastward would have taken away too many seats from District 4, which has historically been preserved as Wake's racial minority district.

In a change from previous redistricting processes, the school board did not hire its longtime legal firm of Tharrington Smith to draw up the new boundaries.

New law firm hired

This time, the Republican majority on the school board hired Kieran Shanahan's law firm to do the work. The hiring of Shanahan, a prominent GOP lawyer, drew complaints from some Democrats.

The maps released by Shanahan last month put all nine districts within 1 percent of one another in terms of population.

It also keeps all current board members in their districts and maintains District 4, which covers Southeast Raleigh, as a majority African-American district.

"There was no gerrymandering," Tedesco said. "I've never seen a map looking so fair."

School board attorney Ann Majestic has also said the changes looked legitimate and didn't appear to be slanted to give one identifiable group less power than the others.

Shanahan, who declined to comment on Monday, has cited attorney-client privilege to decline public records requests for information showing the exact boundary lines for the districts

A News & Observer analysis indicates that the percentages of registered Republicans will likely increase in seven of the nine districts

But none of the gains are more than a few percentage points.

In addition to the partisan squabbling over the boundaries, the districts are catching heat from critics in nonpartisan community groups who've also complained about the changes in the school board's student assignment policies.

Precincts split

The Great Schools in Wake Coalition and the League of Women Voters of Wake County want the school system to redraw the proposed district maps, saying they're "amateurish." They object to the maps splitting up several voting precincts. They also say that some of the districts, such as District 5, should have been made more geographically compact.

"They can certainly make some changes and come back in two to three weeks with some different options," said Betty Ellerbee, a member of the board of the League of Women Voters.

Tedesco and Malone said they'd listen to the comments tonight. But they said they couldn't support making revisions.

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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