The federal trial over the constitutionality of Wake County school board and board of commissioners election maps redrawn by the General Assembly opened on Wednesday with members of the boards describing their surprise and dismay over the changes.
The General Assembly created new district maps for the school board in 2013 and for the board of commissioners in April, despite objections from both bodies.
In lawsuits challenging the changes, a coalition of Wake County voters, residents and community groups contend the plans unfairly weaken the power of urban voters and strengthen the suburban and rural vote. They also contend the districts are racial gerrymanders.
The Wake County Board of Elections is the defendant in the case, though it did not advocate for the plans. State lawmakers were sued initially over the school board maps. But a federal appeals court decided that because the county board of elections is responsible for their implementation, that body was the appropriate legal target.
Republicans who shepherded the new plans through the state legislative process described the changes as fixes to what they saw as unjust election processes.
Critics contend the changes were made by a Republican-led General Assembly with partisan motives, noting that both changes came after the Wake boards went from Republican to Democratic majorities.
The Wake elected officials who testified at the opening of the trial in front of U.S. District Judge James C. Dever III were from both parties.
Bill Fletcher, a Republican who has served two stints on the Wake County school board, said the 2013 plan, set to take effect in 2016, would make it more difficult to represent people in his district.
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 lines for the remaining seven board seat districts would be revised, too, as would the election cycle.
Fletcher described the way the board works now. He said board members tend to have a relationship with constituents in their districts and often hear about issues in the high schools and elementary and middle schools, or “feeder schools,” that send students to those high schools. The mission of the board is to represent all students and the whole county, he added.
The way the new districts are drawn, he said, “would alter the care I’m able to give constituents.”
Fletcher also said by changing the election cycle to match the presidential election year could increase campaign costs for school board candidates trying to get their messages across in a crowded field of local, state and national candidates.
“School board races, for the most part, have been funded for under $20,000,” Fletcher said. The new plan could make it so candidates have “to raise $100,000 or more to have any visibility,” he added.
Christine Kushner, a Democrat who served as chairwoman of the Wake school board from December 2013 until earlier this month, echoed many of Fletcher’s concerns.
They said they were worried that the new process also could have the potential for seven new school board members at one time, instead of the potential of four or five new members every couple of years under the current election cycle.
The “seven-two stagger” could lead to a loss of institutional knowledge that is important for the board setting policy for one of Wake County’s largest economic engines, Kushner and Fletcher said.
Though the courts have allowed districts to be drawn for political purposes, race cannot be a driving force for changing the districts.
State Sen. Dan Blue, a Democrat from Wake County, testified about plans that challengers contend disproportionately pack African-American voters into a large district where the influence of their vote is weakened.
The trial continues Thursday. Dever told the parties on Wednesday he hoped to have a ruling in the case this month.