New election maps will cause turnover on Wake County school board

Wake County school board election districts
Wake County school board election districts

The Wake County school board will lose at least four of its nine members this year unless federal judges prevent use of new election maps that were drawn by the General Assembly.

The filing period for all nine school board seats begins Monday under the boundaries approved by Republican lawmakers in 2013. The new lines, which are being challenged in federal court, are guaranteed to cause at least some turnover because eight board members now find themselves in the same district as at least one other incumbent.

The “double bunking” and “triple bunking” of incumbents caused board member Susan Evans to run for the state Senate instead of re-election. Board members Zora Felton and Kevin Hill both say they will run only if the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstates the maps adopted by the school board in 2011.

Board chairman Tom Benton is weighing whether to run against Vice Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler.

There could be a complete turnover, because all nine seats are on the Nov. 8 ballot.

“It is simply not good governance to have that kind of turnover on any board, whether it’s commissioners or the Board of Education,” Benton said. “Could you imagine what would happen if you had more than half the House or half the Senate turn over?”

The election has the potential to flip the officially nonpartisan school board from a Democratic majority to a Republican majority, and both political parties say they’ve been actively recruiting candidates.

“The school board is vitally important and the Wake County Republican Party believes electing some common-sense conservatives who place the needs of the children ahead of the desires of the bureaucracy is critical for the future of Wake County,” said Charles Hellwig, first vice chairman of the Wake County GOP.

Brian Fitzsimmons, chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party, said his party is committed to electing candidates who will continue the work begun since Democrats regained the school board majority in 2011.

“We are confident that those strong advocates for education will lead our school board because we will focus on them,” said Fitzsimmons, who is also one of the people who filed a lawsuit challenging the new maps. “We know the type of commitment we’ll show the school board and county commission.”

Election changes

The election landscape was altered in 2013 when the state legislature changed the timing, format and boundaries for Wake school board elections. In 2015, the General Assembly changed the election maps for the Wake County Board of Commissioners to match those used by the school board.

Historically, the school board has been split into nine numbered districts, with voters electing a person to represent their district.

The new maps turn two districts into regional districts, called A and B, that each cover about half the county. The boundaries for the remaining numbered districts were also revised.

In November, Wake voters will be able to cast ballots for two school board seats: their numbered district and their regional district.

Past voting results indicate the new maps could produce a 5-4 Republican majority.

Democratic voters and organizations contend in their lawsuit that the new maps unfairly weaken the power of urban voters and strengthen the suburban and rural vote. They also contend the districts are racial gerrymanders.

In February, U.S. Chief District Court Judge James C. Dever III dismissed the lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the election maps. The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case May 9 as part of an expedited appeal process but hasn’t issued a ruling yet.

Tough decisions

If the new maps are used, Districts 2, 3 and 7 will be open because none of the incumbents live in them. Peter Hochstaetter, a corporate trainer, and Gary Lewis, a past president of the Wake County PTA Council, have both announced they will run in District 7, which covers parts of Garner, Fuquay-Varina, Holly Springs, Apex and Cary.

Don Mial, a retired state employee, has announced he will run for the District A seat that includes most of the area inside the Interstate 440 Beltline.

Keith Sutton, the only board member who is not in a district with another incumbent, plans to seek re-election in District 4, which includes parts of Knightdale, east Raleigh and Garner.

But the other eight board members, who agree on most issues, have had to decide if they’re willing to run against one another.

Johnson-Hostler, the vice chair, will run in District 1. Christine Kushner will run in District 5, and Jim Martin will run in District 6.

Board member Bill Fletcher plans to run in District B, which covers the suburban areas, to avoid running against Martin.

Hill, Johnson-Hostler and Benton, the board chair, are now all in District 1.

“I think Tom and Monika have done a magnificent job and need to serve as much as I do,” said Hill, who was elected in 2007.

One of the things Benton is considering is that the new election rules require only a plurality to win. A critic of the current board could have a better chance to win in a race that includes two incumbents.

“I am very pleased with where we are as a board and a system,” Benton said. “But I’m weighing this against the whole campaigning, particularly the probability I would have to campaign and run against a fellow board member that I respect.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui