Garner Cleveland Record

Lawsuit challenges new Wake school board election lines

Several supporters of the Democratic majority on the Wake County school board filed a federal lawsuit Thursday challenging the constitutionality of new election districts drawn up this year by the Republican-led General Assembly.

The lawsuit contends that the new lines violate the one-person, one-vote requirements of the state and U.S. constitutions by creating districts with overly large differences in numbers of voters, diluting the influence of some voters’ ballots. The complaint charges that the new lines “disfavor incumbents who are registered Democrats and support progressive education policies” while trying to “further Republican interests that advance conservative agenda policies.”

“This redistricting plan was designed to change the makeup of the Wake County School Board to include members who would return to policies of re-segregation and undermining of public education,” Amy Womble, one of 13 people and two groups who are plaintiffs, said in a written statement.

Republican lawmakers have denied that the lines were drawn with partisan intent and stressed how the changes would let individual voters pick two board seats – double the current number.

State House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam, an Apex Republican, downplayed the lawsuit.

“I hope they lose,” Stam said. “I expect them to lose. We’ll turn it over to the Attorney General’s Office to defend.”

Several leaders of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition are plaintiffs, including Womble, Amy Lee, former school board member Beverley Clark, and Ann Campbell.

Campbell and her husband John were the largest individual donors in 2011 to the Democratic candidates who retook the school board majority.

Plaintiffs also include the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African-American Children and the Raleigh Wake Citizens Association.

Currently, the school board is organized into nine districts. Voters can pick only the member for their districts of residence. The lines were drawn by the school board in 2011.

But under the law passed in June, the legislature turns two of the nine seats into “regional” representation areas for the county. One district, which is strongly Democratic, includes most of the area of the old Raleigh city limits, inside the 440 Beltline. The other district consists of much of suburban Wake County and historically has voted Republican.

The lines for the other seven board districts also were redrawn.

Starting in 2016, voters would choose candidates for one of the two regional seats and another in the district they reside in. Three non-regional districts that draw from areas inside the Beltline historically have voted Democratic. The four other non-regional districts in the suburbs historically have voted Republican.

The lawsuit points to how, although President Barack Obama won Wake County in 2012, under the new lines he would have had a majority in only four of the nine districts.

“Disenfranchising some voters because they are not voting your way is not constitutionally right,” said Allison Riggs, a staff attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which filed the lawsuit against the General Assembly. “They’re disenfranchising those that don’t favor conservative policies.”