Raleigh, N.C. — A proposal to redraw Wake County's school board districts for the second time in four years could be on the House floor Monday after passing the House Elections Committee Wednesday on strict party lines, 23-12.
The latest version of Senate Bill 325 redraws the county's current nine school board districts into seven, turning the other two seats into "regional districts." Like a bulls-eye, a central district would represent the city, while an outer district would represent the rest of the county.
It also moves the school board elections from odd-numbered years to November of even-numbered years. The new districts would take effect in 2016. The vote would be by plurality.
Members up for re-election in 2013 would run in their old districts for three-year terms instead of four.
Rep. Skip Stam, R-Wake, said the proposal would allow every voter to vote for two members of the school board instead of just one. He said many families whose children attend school in different board districts feel they don't have enough say in choosing members.
None of the current board members could attend Wednesday's meeting because it conflicted with their scheduled interview with superintendent finalists.
“It's particularly inappropriate to take up a bill that affects their board when a majority of them opposes the bill and they’re not available to speak,”said Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake.
If Republican sponsors wanted to let voters choose more than one school board member, Ross said, they could simply have added two regional or at-large seats to the board.
"What is completely unnecessary in this bill is redrawing the lines for the seven current school board members to get rid of the ones certain people don’t like," she said.
Ross also noted that the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and many members of the business community also oppose the redistricting. "They see stability in the school board as not only good for education but good for commerce," she said.
She tried to add a voter referendum to the bill – "Then, at least, you can find out from the people how they feel about this type of redistricting," she said – but the referendum was voted down.
Wake County Commissioner Joe Bryan told the committee the majority of the Board of Commissioners favors the bill because it "improves on the system that exists today."
But Commissioner Caroline Sullivan said redrawing the districts yet again would be "expensive and divisive," costing county taxpayers at least $240,000 to reprint and mail out new voter registration cards and print ballots for the many new split precincts the plan would create.
Attorney Claire Barnett with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice said the new plan violates equal protection and "one person one vote" because the populations of the new districts vary too widely.
In 2010, the Republican school board majority spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to pay for a redistricting plan that favored Republicans, Barnett said, but Democrats won a majority of the seats on the board in 2011 anyway.
"There’s no clear justification or rationale for this action aside from the obvious partisan advantages that come with this new plan," she said.
Rep. Elmer Floyd, D-Cumberland, moved to postpone the vote on the bill until June 6, when school board members could attend: "I think that this board needs to hear from them," he said.
But Stam spoke against the delay. "We know the majority of the school board is opposed to it," he said. "We need to go on with business."
The attempt to postpone the vote was voted down on strict party lines, 23-12.