Committee approves revised Wake school board election bill

khui@newsobserver.comApril 18, 2013 

— Concessions made by Republican lawmakers to a bill changing how and when Wake County school board members would be elected failed to win over Democrats and school board members.

The Senate Redistricting Committee approved Wednesday a bill that would move Wake school board elections to even-numbered years, redraw the current board boundaries and create two new regional board seats. But the committee’s backing of a revised bill that would delay the changes by two years to 2016 was still met with objections from opponents of the legislation.

“It’s unfair,” said Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Mecklenburg County Democrat. “It’s unwarranted. It’s certainly political, and it doesn’t serve the citizens of North Carolina.”

The bill, which passed along party lines with Republicans in support, now moves to the full Senate.

Sen. Neal Hunt, a Raleigh Republican and a primary sponsor of S325, denied Wednesday that the bill’s motive is political. He said he introduced the bill because voter turnout in school board elections has been “abysmal” and to give the public a greater voice by letting them elect two board members.

“If you get more people to vote, it will defuse the politics,” he said.

Details of revised bill

Hunt backed a substitute bill developed by nonpartisan state legislative staff that changed one of the most controversial portions of the bill.

The original bill would have had the new lines go into effect in the spring 2014 primary, putting all nine board seats on the ballot. This would have meant cancelling this fall’s board elections. Instead, the bill would have extended the terms of four board members, including two Republicans elected in 2009, and shortened by 17 months the terms of five Democratic-backed board members elected in 2011.

The revised bill would put the new lines into effect in the spring 2016 primary. It would extend the terms of the board members elected in 2011 by cancelling the fall 2015 elections. The bill would go ahead with this fall’s elections with candidates and voters knowing they’d only get 2 1/2 year terms.

But Wake school board Chairman Keith Sutton, a Democrat, and other speakers still criticized the revised bill.

The legislation would turn two of the board seats into regional districts that each represent half the county. This would let individual voters pick two board seats – a regional member and one for their district. Currently, voters can choose only their own district’s representative.

Both sides see ‘mockery’

The bill draws up new boundaries for the other seven seats instead of leaving the zones up to the school board, which drafted the current lines in 2011. Critics complain that the new boundaries would help Republicans regain the majority on the school board and would result in overly large election districts.

The bill also moves school board elections, now held in October during odd-numbered years, to the spring primaries, generally held in May, in even-numbered years.

“It’s big state government interfering in local government once again,” said Amy Womble, a Wake County parent.

Joe Bryan, the Republican chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, said the panel’s majority supported the revised bill. But Democratic Commissioner Caroline Sullivan complained that it would cost $230,000 to print up new voter cards to reflect the changes.

The committee discussion went along partisan lines, with Graham calling the bill a “mockery” and another example of the GOP “asserting its will on local governments.”

Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Henderson County Republican, charged that the “mockery” was Graham wanting to “repress the vote” by leaving the election in odd-numbered years “so the minority party can keep control.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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