Is Senate Bill 325 essentially a second try for Republicans to hold a majority on the Wake County school board?
As noted in today's article, the stated main purpose of the new legislation is to give individual Wake County voters the ability to elect a second school board member. But the bill also lets state Republican lawmakers rewrite the boundaries for Wake's school board districts.
This comes after the redistricting plan approved by the former Republican school board majority in 2011 didn't turn out as some thought that it would in ensuring GOP control of the state's largest school district.
Various reasons such as the way the Republicans governed the school board, the outside spending from state and national liberal advocacy groups and just not having a true appreciation of what the new lines would actually do have been cited as some reasons why the Democrats won in 2011 under the new maps.
Click here for a black-and-white set of maps from state Sen. Neal Hunt's office that show both the seven new proposed districts and the two proposed regional districts. Click here for a color version of the seven districts that we rendered.
Click here to compare with the current district boundaries.
This is not a hastily thought out bill.
Versions have apparently been floating in the legislature for months until it was introduced Wednesday. Hunt, a Raleigh Republican and one of the bill's primary sponsors, said he's not expecting a different version to be presented in the House by GOP members of the Wake delegation.
Hunt said that the boundaries were drawn up by Republican Senate staffers.
“We really tried to be fair and draw up competitive districts,” Hunt said.
When I asked Hunt what his definition of competitive was, he defined it as several districts where around 54 percent of voters have backed Republicans. Officially when the school board hired Kieran Shanahan to do the maps in 2011, they didn't take into account party affiliation or past voting records.
Republican state lawmakers had also said that the maps they drew in 2011 for the state legislature and Congressional districts were competitive. The GOP numbers went up sharply after last year's elections.
Hunt acknowledged that the urban core districts such as 3 and 4 in the new maps are heavily Democratic. But he said that wasn't a case of packing Democrats in but a reflection of the demographics of that area.
Michael Crowell, an attorney who in the past has helped Wake and other school boards draw up their election boundaries, said Friday he couldn’t recall when the state legislature has on its own drawn up the boundaries for a school board.
“It’s unusual for the legislature to change the method of electing a local board without the involvement, or at least acquiescence, of the local board,” said Crowell, now a professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government.
The bill’s proposed districts would feature two districts that each have three current school board members in them. That likely would force several members to leave the board.
No current board member lives in the proposed District 3 and District 7.
Hunt said staff members didn’t look at where board members lived when the boundaries were drawn.
The new lines are not as compact as the current boundaries.
For instance, Republican board member John Tedesco’s part of Garner is not in the section of town that’s included in the heavily Democratic District 4 that Democratic school board chairman Keith Sutton would be in.
Tedesco would be part of District 1 that forms the northern and eastern perimeters of the county, running from Garner up through Wendell and Zebulon and moving west through northern Wake Forest. It includes the area in Zebulon where Democratic board member Tom Benton lives and part of the watershed area in northern Wake where Democratic board member Kevin Hill lives.
District 6 would include Democratic school board members Jim Martin and Susan Evans and Republican Bill Fletcher.
Republican board member Deborah Prickett would be in District 5.
Democratic board vice chairwoman Christine Kushner would be in the new District 2.
Kushner questioned why her new district runs from the part of Raleigh inside the Beltline, including the Carolina Country Club, up past the Outer Loop into Wake Forest. The bill would remove most of the neighborhoods now in her district.
“It’s striking how radical a change it is,” Kushner said.
A rough check of the numbers would indicate that Kushner could have a hard time winning in the new District 2. In addition, it would seem Republicans could also win Districts 1, 6, 7 and B to gain a majority.
Democrats would seem to have a better chance in Districts 3, 4, 5 and A. That includes the district Prickett is in but there may be other data indicating it's more winnable for her or another Republican.
You're already seeing grumbling about the bill's new lines and shortening by 17 months the terms of the Democratic board members elected in 2011.
For instance, Rob Schofield of the liberal N.C. Policy Watch has called the bill a "power grab."
“It’s striking that they’re redistricting so significantly so soon and they’re shortening terms,” Kushner said. “It’s something you’d expect more in a Third World country than America.”
Sutton said shortening the terms is “moving the goal post” on voters.
“It’s really unfair to voters who thought they were picking people for four years,” Sutton said.
But Hunt said "it's not a big deal" that the terms are being changed.
Hunt also said that Republicans are only doing what Democrats had done when they were in charge.
“They did it that way for years,” Hunt said of Democrats. “We do it and they accuse us of being fascists and making a power grab. You didn’t hear that language from us.”
One of the issues that has been asked is why Hunt didn't do what the Republican majority on the Wake County Board of Commissioners requested in their legislative agenda by making four of the school board seats at-large positions.
Hunt said they heard feedback from people who said it would be too expensive for school board candidates to run countywide in Wake.
As a compromise, Hunt said they opted to go with creating the regional district B to cover the suburbs and regional District A to cover the urban core.
Hunt said the regional districts will give voters an additional board member to elect. He said it should also address the complaints from some parents that they have no say in their child’s board member because the student goes to school in a different board district.
“It’s not exactly what we wanted, but it’s an improvement over what we now have,” said Wake County Commissioner Tony Gurley, a Republican.
Another interesting note is how it seems Tedesco's views have shifted on the issue.
A month ago, Tedesco said he can see both the pros and cons of having at-large seats and moving elections to even-numbered years.
Tedesco said then that having elections in even-numbered years where presidential and congressional races are on the ballot will increase voter participation. But he said that the people who now vote in the low-turnout school board elections in odd-numbered years tend to be more knowledgeable about education issues.
Tedesco also said then that at-large seats will give voters more say in who is elected. But he said having fewer or no district seats would make it harder for smaller communities to have their concerns heard.
Even with nine districts, Tedesco said then it's a lot of constituent work. He said it would be even harder if the county was broken up into only five districts.
But also at that time, Tedesco said he'd want to review the new bill before taking a position.
This week, Tedesco said he backs Hunt's bill because it will increase representation for Wake County voters by being able to elect two members. Tedesco said he wished the bill would have allowed for at-large seats so people could elect even more members.
Tedesco said he's hoping the bill will be revised but Hunt said he doesn't expect to see much in the way of changes.
Tedesco said shortening the terms of some board members is worth the advantage of letting voters begin picking an additional board member next year.
“Any time you change the election cycle, somebody is going to lose a bit of their term,” Tedesco said.
As for the possible cons of greater turnout, Tedesco said that can be mitigated somewhat by the fact that the school board elections would be during the primaries as opposed to the General Election. He said the smaller primary turnout means you'd still have a lot of voters who are educated on school issues.
Now the bill would place the seven numbered districts during primaries for the mid-term elections, which typically have lower voter turnout than the primaries in presidential election years. Only the two regional seats, after 2014, would be elected during the presidential election years.
A wild card here is that you could have a high turnout among Republicans next year in the primary battle for the U.S. Senate nomination to oppose Democratic Senator Kay Hagan. You're probably not as likely to see as big a turnout in the Democratic primary in 2014 unless people are motivated to vote for the school board seats.
Tedesco said he'll run whenever he's told, but he's not expecting it to be this fall as the postponement of the 2013 elections would give him more time.
"It's pretty clear that there won't be an election this fall," Tedesco sad.