With a federal trial set to start in two weeks, the Wake County school board passed a resolution Tuesday reaffirming its support for Board of Education election maps adopted locally in 2011 over new lines drafted by the General Assembly.
In 2013, the General Assembly redrew the election maps for the school board, changing the boundaries for districts, the way members are elected and the timing of the elections. School board members repeatedly called the legislature’s change an example of “poor governance” and said that elections should go back to being based on the maps the board previously adopted.
“This could create something that our community did not ask for and will not be happy with,” said school board member Bill Fletcher, the board’s lone registered Republican.
In April, the General Assembly altered the election maps for the Wake County Board of Commissioners to match the lines being used for the school board.
Republican lawmakers have said the changes weren’t made for partisan reasons. But critics have noted that the lines were adopted only after both the school board and later the commissioners flipped from GOP to Democratic majorities.
A group of left-leaning citizens and community groups filed separate federal lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the new Wake maps. Both complaints were consolidated into one case whose trial date is scheduled to begin Dec. 16. Neither the school board nor Board of Commissioners are plaintiffs in the case.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim the new lines are illegally designed to weaken the influence of urban Raleigh voters who tend to support Democratic candidates. A N&O analysis of voting patterns in the new lines indicates that they could lead to Republicans regaining the majority on both Wake boards.
Under the new maps, two of the nine school board seats would be converted into super regional districts, each representing half the county. One would largely represent Central Raleigh and the other would represent the suburbs. The remaining seven board seats would have their lines revised.
Supporters of the new maps have given different reasons for why they feel the new lines would be superior. In the case of the school board, it would mean that voters would now be able to elect two instead of just one member. Voters would select both the member for their individual district and the regional district.
The new lines are set to go into effect for the school board in 2016.
In 2013, the school board passed a resolution supporting the lines it had developed in 2011. On Tuesday, the board reaffirmed the prior resolution.
One of the most frequently cited complaints Tuesday is how the new maps could lead to mass change on the board in one election cycle.
Previously, elections alternated between having five seats on one ballot and four on the other ballot. All nine seats will be on the November 2016 ballot. In future years, it would alternate between cycles of seven seats and then two seats on the ballot.
“You’re kind of rolling the dice with any election,” said school board member Kevin Hill. “The learning curve for any board member, as I can attest to, is pretty steep. It’s just poor governance."
Fletcher said having all nine board seats on the ballot in 2016 almost guarantees chaos.
“This election strategy suggests there will always be turmoil on the leadership of the most important economic engine in Wake County,” Fletcher said.
Another repeated concern from board members is that the new lines are less compact than the old districts, resulting in more split precincts and lines different from what’s been used historically. For instance, a new district now stretches from northwest Raleigh to eastern Wake to Garner.
“It will be very difficult for community members to even know who their school board representative is,” said school board member Susan Evans.
School board member Christine Kushner pointed to how the new maps splits many of Wake’s municipalities into multiple board districts. She said Raleigh is now split into five districts, Garner is split into four districts and Cary into three districts.
School board member Jim Martin said the new districts are so different from old lines that it will make it hard for board members to represent schools and parents.
Evans also said the new maps make no effort to keep feeder patterns between schools in the same board district.
The new maps also puts incumbents Evans, Martin and Fletcher in the same district. It’s one of the reasons that Evans, a Democrat, decided to run for the District 17 N.C. Senate seat now held by Tamara Barringer, a Republican.
“It will not even be possible for all nine of these board members to run again next year unless we choose to run against each year, which I don’t think we will do,” Evans said.
Fletcher also said that putting the school board seats on the November 2016 ballot will make it harder for candidates to raise money and get media attention.
“There’s no air left in the room when you’ve got president, governor and this year a senator running statewide,” Fletcher said. “The money is gone. The media time is gone.”