N.C. Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Republican representing much of Garner, is a co-sponsor of legislation that would dramatically alter the Wake County school board.
S.B. 325 calls for seven rather than nine residency districts while creating two at-large seats: one for the urban core and one for the suburbs and rural areas. The change, Barefoot said, would give the area he represents more voices on the school board.
“I signed onto the bill for the at-large districts,” he said. “This gives east Wake County more representation; that’s a good thing.”
In Garner, reaction to the legislation is mixed.
Garner Councilman Gra Singleton, a Democrat, said he saw no problem with the current set-up, with each school board member elected from the district in which he or she lives. If the number of residency districts fell to seven from nine, the districts would necessarily be larger, and Singleton said he feared the districts becoming too big for one person to adequately represent.
He wondered too how one person could possibly hope to represent all of suburban and rural Wake County.
Barefoot noted that large districts are nothing new. His own Senate district stretches from Garner to Franklin County.
The legislation is central to a broader fight between the Republican-controlled General Assembly and the Democrat-controlled Wake school board. Another bill would shift ownership, construction and maintenance of schools from school boards to county governments.
Garner Councilwoman Kathy Behringer, a Republican, lamented the infusion of politics into the education of Wake County school children.
“I would certainly rather see the school board be nonpartisan, just like Garner’s council elections are nonpartisan.” Behringer said. “The number one concern should be the safety and education of the students. Party politics clouds that.”
But party politics are inevitable, said Amy White of Garner, who served on the school board from 2001-2005. The Republican said that in her time, abstinence-based sex education was a hot-button issue. She said politics will always seep in when discussing the allocation of school funds.
White said the biggest issue to her is finding the right people to run. “The problem has never been the district representation,” she said. “It’s always been about finding qualified and passionate to fill that role.”
N.C. Rep. Rosa Gill, a Wake County Democrat, represents North Garner in the General Assembly and served on the school board from 1999-2009. She said she the legislation was trying to fix a process that’s not broken.
“When I served on the board, you could talk to any of the members of the board if you had a concern,” Gill said. “We may have had our partisan philosophies, but when it came to what was best for the students, we came together to make sure they had access to a good quality education.”
N.C. Rep. Darren Jackson, a Democrat representing part of Garner, said he also found the bill problematic. “I think this would be a step backward,” he said of the proposed district map, which would seem to favor Republican candidates. “I wouldn’t have a problem redrawing these districts if it were drawn with common sense, not with partisanship.”
And Like Singleton, Jackson opposed the proposed at-large split of the county, citing districts too large to represent.
“This is not a high-paying job,” Jackson added. “It’s not supposed to be a partisan job.”
School board member John Tedesco of Garner did not respond to requests for comment on this story. After S.B. 325 emerged, an email surfaced from Tedesco to Wake School board member Kevin Hill, warning him of legislative action to restrain the school board’s power.
“What the General Assembly giveth, they can clearly take.” Tedesco wrote, adding that he had warned Hill to not overreach or “disregard the concerns of other elected bodies.”
“Well now you get to eat the pie you baked,” Tedesco wrote.