RALEIGH — The state House approved legislation Monday that redraws the election boundaries for Wake County school board seats after heated debate over whether the changes are designed to put Republicans back in charge of the state’s largest school system.
Senate Bill 325 discards the lines adopted by the former Republican board majority in 2011 in favor of new lines drawn up by GOP legislative staffers that would go into effect in 2016. The bill also changes when and how the school board members are elected.
Republicans say the new districts will encourage voter turnout and give people more representation on the board by increasing how many members they can elect.
The bill passed on a 70-42 vote.
“There will be more people voting for school board in one election than in the school board elections of all of the 10 prior years,” Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican, predicted. “That’s a difference. Now we say that education is important. Then for heaven’s sakes, let’s have the best opportunity for the most people in Wake County to have an impact on the election of those members of the school board.”
Democrats insist the bill was written for partisan reasons and would jeopardize public support for an $810 million school construction bond referendum that’s expected to be on the Wake ballot this fall.
“The only folks who are crying for this are folks whose side lost in the Republican-drawn districts in the last election and want to reshape the playing field to try to come back for another win,” said Rep. Grier Martin, a Raleigh Democrat.
A Republican amendment approved Monday moves 12 precincts and puts Democratic board Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner and Republican board member Deborah Prickett into election districts they’re more likely to win.
Currently, the board consists of nine members from different districts. Residents only vote for candidates running in their districts.
The House bill would:
• Convert two seats on the board to regional positions, each representing half the county.
• Redraw the lines for the other seven board seats. One district would run from northwest Raleigh to Zebulon and down to Garner.
• Allow individual voters pick two seats, one for their district and one of the regional seats.
• Move elections from October of odd-numbered years to November of even-numbered years.
• Drop the requirement that a candidate must win a majority among a field of multiple candidates. This prevents expensive run-off elections that traditionally draw low turnout.
A Democratic-backed amendment to require that the bill’s changes be approved in a public referendum was rejected.
The bill extends the terms of board members elected in 2011 a year through 2016. This fall’s elections would still take place under the old lines and for only three-year terms.
The measure would become law if the Senate, which OK’d an earlier version, gives approval to the revisions made by the House. As a local bill, it doesn’t require the approval of Gov. Pat McCrory.
The Senate also passed a bill last month that would allow the county board of commissioners in Wake and eight other counties to take authority for school construction away from their local school boards. That legislation is awaiting a vote in the House.