Raleigh, N.C. — Wake County's school board would be reshuffled so that members would be elected in a two-tiered district system under a bill that cleared the Senate Redistricting Committee Wednesday.
The bill, which passed on a voice vote, creates seven individual districts and two regional super-districts. The two regional districts would be split between a donut-shaped zone that takes in the county's rural areas and an urban district taking in most of Raleigh and Cary in the middle.
School board elections would also move from odd-numbered years to the May primaries of even-numbered years.
"Voter turnout has been abysmal in these school board races," said Sen. Neal Hunt, R-Wake.
While the number of voters participating in a given county commissioner election in an even numbered year have recently totaled about 1 million, fewer than 100,000 voters participated in the most recent school board elections.
Under the version of the bill adopted Wednesday, the changes would not go into effect until 2016, allowing the current system to remain in place until then.
The bill raised partisan hackles during the committee meeting.
"Here we go again, the state of North Carolina, this General Assembly, this GOP, asserting its will on local governments," said Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg. "It is not fair, it is not warranted, it is certainly political and it doesn't serve the citizens of North Carolina."
Graham's comments drew a parallel between the school board measure and other bills that have imposed changes on local governments. For example, Graham pushed back against a bill that takes the Charlotte Douglas International Airport away from the city of Charlotte and turns it over to a regional authority.
"It weakens North Carolina and makes citizens across this state look upon this process as a mockery," Graham said.
That prompted an answer from Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, who backed Hunt's bill.
"It's amazing to me the gentleman from Mecklenburg wants to repress the vote and keep it in odd years so nobody comes out nowhere near a majority so the minority party can keep control," Apodaca said. "That's kind of a mockery also."
Local politicians testified during the meeting.
Joe Bryan, chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, said his group passed a resolution in favor of redrawing the school board districts on a 4-3 party-line vote.
School board Chairman Keith Sutton said his members would rather keep the current system.
"We are not in favor of this change," Sutton said.
A handful of Wake County residents spoke out against the measure as well.
"There will be great confusion if you change the districts now," said Amy Womble, who identified herself as a graduate of the Wake County school system and a parent of children in the system.
Schools that are near each other would be split between different districts, Womble said.
"These two (regional) districts pit the suburban areas against the urban areas of town," she said.