Proposed changes by Republican state legislators that would overhaul how Wake County school board members are elected – potentially making it easier for the GOP to regain the board majority – are sparking passionate responses along partisan lines.
The legislation introduced this week in the state Senate would double to two the number of Wake school board members that individual voters can elect. But along the way, state Sen. Neal Hunt acknowledges, the bill lets legislators redraw the district boundaries to make the races “competitive,” which he defined as several districts where around 54 percent of voters have backed Republicans.
“They (the Democrats) did it that way for years,” said Hunt, a Raleigh Republican and one of the bill’s primary sponsors, on Friday. “We do it and they accuse us of being fascists and making a power grab. You didn’t hear that language from us.”
But critics complain that the bill, which is opposed by the school board, would create convoluted lines and would unfairly shorten the terms of members of the Democratic board majority by 17 months.
“It’s striking that they’re redistricting so significantly so soon and they’re shortening terms,” said school board vice chairwoman Christine Kushner, a Democrat whose term the bill would end next year instead of in 2015. “It’s something you’d expect more in a Third World country than America.”
In addition to the proposed changes in Wake, another bill introduced this week that has the backing of the Senate Republican leadership would set new boundaries for school board seats in Guilford County. That bill also wasn’t requested by the local school board.
Michael Crowell, an attorney who in the past has helped Wake and other school boards draw up their election boundaries, said Friday that he couldn’t recall when the state legislature has on its own drawn up the boundaries for a school board. Usually school boards draw up their own districts every 10 years, such as what the former Republican board majority did in 2011.
“It’s unusual for the legislature to change the method of electing a local board without the involvement, or at least acquiescence, of the local board,” said Crowell, now a professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government.
Under the bill, S325, Wake County voters would now pick two school board members, up from the current practice where all nine seats are from districts and voters only get to select the one representing their district. The bill calls for creating two regional districts – each representing half the county – and seven smaller districts.
The bill stems from a request by the Republican majority on the Wake County Board of Commissioners to change state law so that it would create four at-large countywide seats and five district seats. That kind of change would let voters pick a majority of school board seats in the state’s largest school district.
Hunt said legislators heard from people that it would be too expensive for school board candidates to run in countywide races. Instead, he said, legislators decided to create the two regional districts – one representing the suburbs and the other the urban core of the county.
“Ideally we would have liked to have each voter vote for five, but at least they can vote for two,” he said.
Hunt said the regional districts will give voters an additional board member to elect.
“It’s not exactly what we wanted, but it’s an improvement over what we now have,” said Wake County Commissioner Tony Gurley, a Republican.
Hunt previously introduced another bill requested by Wake commissioners that would allow all 100 county governments to take ownership, construction and maintenance of schools away from school boards. The Wake school board is also against that bill.
The new bill would move Wake’s elections, now held in October in odd-numbered years, to the same time as May primaries in even-numbered years. More than two-dozen North Carolina school districts, including Durham and Orange counties, hold school board elections during the primaries.
The bill would still leave the school board contests as officially non-partisan.
It would end the terms of all nine current board members in June 2014. The bill also would postpone this fall’s elections, extending the terms of four board members, including all three Republicans and one Democrat. It would end early the terms of the five Democratic board members who were elected in 2011 to terms that are scheduled to end in November 2015.
“It’s not a big deal,” Hunt said of the changes in the terms of current board members.
‘Moving the goalpost’
But school board chairman Keith Sutton said the change is “moving the goalpost” on voters.
“It’s really unfair to voters who thought they were picking people for four years,” said Sutton, a Democrat whose term would be shortened.
School board member John Tedesco, a Republican whose term would be extended, said the change is worth the advantage of letting voters begin picking an additional board member next year. He also said that having the elections in the even-numbered years should increase the voter turnout.
“Any time you change the election cycle, somebody is going to lose a bit of their term,” Tedesco said.
The creation of the regional districts means the boundaries of the other districts also had to be changed. But instead of leaving that up to the board, Hunt said the revised boundaries were written by Senate staff.
“It will help make the races very competitive,” Hunt said of the new lines.
Republican state lawmakers also said that the maps they drew in 2011 for the state legislature and congressional districts were competitive. The maps helped Republicans substantially build their majorities in the legislature and gain a majority of the state’s congressional districts.
The Wake bill’s proposed districts would feature two districts with each having three current school board members in it. That likely would force several members to leave the board. None of the current board members live in two of the proposed districts. Hunt said staff members didn’t look at where board members lived when the boundaries were drawn.
The maps show that Tedesco’s part of Garner is not in the section of town that’s included in the heavily Democratic district that Sutton would be in.
Tedesco would be part of a district that forms the northern and eastern perimeters of the county, running from Garner up through Wendell and Zebulon and moving west through northern Wake Forest. It includes the area in Zebulon where board member Tom Benton, a Democrat, lives and part of the watershed area in northern Wake where board member Kevin Hill, a Democrat, lives.
Another proposed district would include Democratic school board members Jim Martin and Susan Evans and Republican Bill Fletcher.
The new school district boundaries are not as compact as the current lines.
Kushner, the board vice chairwoman, questioned why her new district runs from the part of Raleigh inside the Beltline, including the Carolina Country Club, up past the Outer Loop into Wake Forest. The bill would remove most of the neighborhoods now in her district.
“It’s striking how radical a change it is,” she said.
News researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.