Senate passes Wake school board election bill

khui@newsobserver.comApril 22, 2013 

Senator Neal Hunt

MLEWIS

— Legislation that redraws the election boundaries for Wake County school board seats and changes when the elections are held passed the state Senate on Monday amid heated allegations of racial and political bias.

Senate Bill 325 tosses out the current boundaries for all nine Wake school board seats and moves elections to even-numbered years. Supporters said the changes would allow the public to vote for more board members and increase turnout, but critics charged the changes were racially and politically motivated to help Republicans regain the majority on the school board. The current boundaries, however, were drawn up in 2011, when the school board had a Republican majority.

The legislation passed 33-17 with Republicans in support and Democrats voting no. It now moves to the House for consideration.

“This bill is wrong on many levels,” said Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat. “This legislation is about a Republican majority in the General Assembly inserting itself in local affairs in order to exact partisan payback.”

Sen. Neal Hunt, a Raleigh Republican, has repeatedly denied that the election changes are political. He said that moving the school board elections to the spring primaries in even-numbered years would increase “abysmal” turnout for school board contests now held in October in odd-numbered years.

“The idea is to increase turnout for school board elections,” said Hunt, one of the bill’s primary sponsors.

The bill turns two of the nine board seats into regional districts, each representing half the county. The bill would allow voters to pick two board seats, the one for their district and the one for their region. Creating the two regional districts meant redrawing the lines for the other seven seats.

Hunt said that the regional seats will increase the chances for parents who live in one school board district, but whose children attend school in another, to vote for the board member who represents the district where their child attends school.

The bill comes after several high-profile years for the school board of the state’s largest school district.

A Republican majority took office in 2009, making changes such as dropping diversity from the student assignment policy and hiring Tony Tata, a retired Army general, to be superintendent. A new Democratic majority regained control in 2011, scrapping the choice-based assignment plan developed by Republicans and firing Tata, whom Gov. Pat McCrory later named secretary of transportation.

The controversy was mentioned Monday by Stein and Sen. Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat, as they opposed the bill.

Stein said that the legislation would reopen the wounds that the community has been trying to heal from.

Blue pointed to Wake’s national recognition over the years for its academic performance. He called the bill the most important one they’ll debate all legislative session.

“You really can save a great school system, and this bill goes to destroy it,” he said.

Stein and Blue spoke for much of the debate time Monday evening, insisting the lines in the bill were clearly drawn for racial and partisan purposes.

Stein questioned the new lines in Hunt’s bill that create large non-compact areas such as a district that runs from northwest Raleigh to Zebulon and down to Garner. If the purpose was to increase representation for parents, he said, the bill should have overlaid the two new regional districts on top of the current nine board seats. He said the new lines increase the likelihood that a family’s children won’t go to school in the district where they live.

Stein also said one of the regional districts in Hunt’s bill mirrors the lines Republicans had used in drawing up new state legislative districts designed to create minority districts.

“He is racially polarizing the electorate for school board purposes,” he said. “That is outrageous.”

Hunt did not respond during the debate to the charges made by Stein and Blue. “The statement that it was racist was absolutely absurd,” Hunt said in an interview after the meeting ended. “It didn’t merit a response.”

The bill approved Monday was a compromise. Originally, the new lines would have gone into effect in 2014, extending the terms of Republican board members elected in 2009 and shortening the terms of Democratic board members elected in 2011.

Now the lines won’t go into effect until the spring 2016 primary, when all nine board seats would go on the ballot. The delay would extend the terms of the Democrats elected in 2011 by cancelling the 2015 elections. Instead of cancelling this fall’s elections, board members would know ahead of time that they’ll be serving 2-1/2-year terms.

But the compromise hasn’t satisfied Democratic legislators or Wake school board members, who are scheduled to vote Tuesday on a resolution supporting the current board election boundaries.

“These maps were drawn without public input, against the will of the school board and for transparently partisan reasons,” Stein said.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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