New state-mandated school board districts in Wake County could make it easier for Republicans to regain control of North Carolina’s largest school system, but the lines might have to survive legal challenges first.
Initially, legislation the General Assembly passed this week will have the effect of keeping the current Democratic-backed majority on the school board in power until 2016, giving an extra year on the board to members elected in 2011.
However, Wake residents will face new school board election boundaries in 2016, along with a new election day and the ability to vote on two of the nine seats. Voter registration statistics indicate that, based on past election trends, the new lines could put a 5-4 Republican majority on the board.
In light of the coming changes , the Southern Coalition for Social Justice is considering legal action against the law. The left-leaning group sued the General Assembly in 2012, resulting in a federal judge forcing legislators to change the new districts they drew up for the Guilford County Board of Commissioners.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“We believe it’s unconstitutional and are in the process of preparing to take relevant next steps,” said Allison Riggs, staff attorney for the Durham-based advocacy group. “We’re talking with our clients and anyone else who feels they are wronged.”
Riggs’ group had written a letter to legislators arguing that the Wake law runs counter to the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution because the population for one of the two new regional districts is 472,585 and the other is 428,408. The group said the difference is so large it dilutes the voting strength of people in the larger district.
Paul Stam, the state House Speaker Pro Tem, said he’s not worried about the legal threat.
“This is a free country,” said Stam, an Apex Republican and attorney. “Filing a suit is a sport.”
Threat of suit changed bill
But Stam acknowledged that the group’s lawsuit in Guilford helped determine how legislators went about developing the Wake school board election bill. It’s one reason that Democrats are getting an extra year in control of the school board.
One of the complaints in the Guilford case was that the legislature shortened the terms of commissioners who were already in office.
The original bill would have done the same thing in Wake by starting the new lines in 2014, resulting in shortening by a year the terms of the five Democratic-backed school board members who were elected in 2011. Stam said legislators modified the bill so that those board members will serve until 2016.
Wake voters will still elect four board members this October. Candidates will compete in the current districts, but for three-year terms instead of four.
The partisan composition of the board is unlikely to change in the fall election, giving a Democratic majority control until at least 2016.
The extra year will give the majority more time to complete a student assignment plan based on a revised policy that includes diversity as a factor. It also means the new superintendent will have three years before the possibility of a board shakeup.
School board member Jim Martin, a Democrat whose term is being extended, downplayed the significance of the extra year.
“I will work with any board member,” he said. “You don’t hear me talking about a majority.”
Future promise for the GOP
But the election landscape could be less friendly in 2016 to Democrats running for the officially nonpartisan school board.
Voter registration statistics show that Republican candidates have consistently won statewide races in five of the nine new districts.
The law turns two of the current districts 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.
Voters would choose a candidate 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 new districts were drawn by staffers for Republican legislators, replacing the maps adopted in 2011 by the former Republican board majority. The old district lines typically would have been used for a decade until the next census.
The changed districts create another issue for current board members in 2016 – where to run.
Martin, fellow Democratic board member Susan Evans and Bill Fletcher, a Republican board member who often votes with the majority, live in the same GOP-leaning district.
Another GOP-leaning district includes Republican board member John Tedesco, Democratic board member Tom Benton and board member Kevin Hill, who ran as a Democrat but is now registered as unaffiliated.
“Democracy doesn’t work if you draw districts for political advantage,” Martin said.
But Tedesco said that the districts would have been drawn up differently if the goal was to ensure a Republican majority.
Vying with top of ticket?
However, Tedesco and Martin share a concern about the impact of moving the elections to the November ballots of presidential and midterm election years. Both said they fear that the school board elections will get lost in all the attention focused on races at the top of the ticket.
“If you think school issues are going to get much traction, I don’t know what you’re drinking,” Martin said.
Republican lawmakers had focused on predicting an increase in turnout by moving elections away from October of odd-numbered years. Only 21 percent of voters participated in 2011, the last school board election, compared to 75 percent in last year’s presidential election.
“A maximum number of people will participate, and therefore they are less likely to complain,” Stam said during Monday’s floor debate.