A one-mile error recasts Chatham County's school board race | Chatham County | Indy Week
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A one-mile error recasts Chatham County's school board race 

Bad directions

Click for larger image (JPG) (PDF)

Click for larger image (JPG) (PDF)

The intersection of Abeyance and Moncure Pittsboro roads is unremarkable, just a spot in rural Chatham County where gravel meets pavement.

But that intersection is pivotal in the Chatham County Board of Education race. A 13-year-old mapping error placed Kathie Russell, who represents the board in District 3, outside of her district by almost a mile. The correction of that error could prevent Russell from running for re-election this year—and has prompted the school board to ask county commissioners to redraw the board of education districts.

Download

Letter from Board of Elections to elected officials (PDF, 17 KB)

Letter from Board of Elections to District 3 school board member Kathie Russell (PDF, 9 KB)

Letter from Board of Elections to voters (PDF, 10 KB)

Dawn Stumpf, director of the Chatham County Board of Elections, said she learned of the mapping error on Sept. 30, 2009, after receiving a letter from the county's E-911 addressing department.

Russell said she received a letter from the Board of Elections—a month later—about the error. "I don't like to think people do things for nefarious reasons, but we can't help but wonder how long this information was known previous to the September letter," Russell said.

The letter states E-911 had corrected a district line, mapped in 1997, at Abeyance and Moncure Pittsboro roads. According to the new map, Russell, who lives at 261 Abeyance Road, is in District 2. That district is represented by David Hamm, whose term expires in 2012.

According to E-911 Specialist Lesa Chavis, in cleaning up old data Chatham County officials have discovered many mapping inaccuracies. "That data was calculated incorrectly years ago," Chavis explained. "We're cleaning up those inaccuracies and working with our online system to update all addresses."

Like Russell, the school board and county commissioners received the letter Oct. 30. Two months later, on Dec. 22, the school board asked commissioners to redraw the four school board districts to match those of the five commissioners—thereby adding a district to the school board. And by doing so, Russell could run for re-election.

The school board didn't petition the county commissioners immediately after receiving the letter because it needed time —the Nov. 2 and 9 meetings—to discuss its contents and ramifications, said District 1 school board representative Flint O'Brien.

The school board didn't meet again until Dec. 17. Five days later, it petitioned commissioners to intervene.

But it's not that simple. First, commissioners would have to redraw the lines by Feb. 8—the start of filing for the 2010 elections. Secondly, the commissioners can't redraw any lines without permission from the General Assembly, which doesn't convene until May.

O'Brien said if commissioners can't redraw the lines by Feb. 8, then it should wait until after the census. "I'm personally uneasy with doing anything with redistricting once filing starts," he said. "Someone could file in February and then find out they live in a different district in May."

According to Chatham County acting attorney, Richard Rose, the law is clear that county commissioners can't draw school board lines. "It would be unusual for one local government body to have authority to redraw districts for another local government body," Rose said.

State law allows local boards of education to revise electoral district boundaries under certain circumstances, such as when new territory is annexed or after a census. However, since the law does not authorize specifically the Chatham County Board of Education to revise the district boundaries, the General Assembly would have to amend the statute to allow the board to change them.

Further complicating matters, commission and school board districts will likely have to be redrawn next year based on the 2010 census.

The commissioners plan to meet this week with House Speaker Joe Hackney, whose district includes Chatham and Orange counties, to discuss their options.

"We are going to likely have to work on a goal that states we want the local board of education districts to not be a state responsibility when drawing boundaries, but a local decision," District 1 County Commissioner Sally Kost said. "It's not fair to the voters, or to the incumbent who isn't allowed to run."


Between the lines

Three Chatham County school board seats in two districts are open this year, but the election has hit some snags.

District 3

When the candidate filing period begins Feb. 8, it's uncertain if Kathie Russell, the current District 3 representative, will be able to run for re-election.

Because of a mapping error, the district lines were inaccurately drawn to place Russell in District 3. She actually lives in District 2, represented by David Hamm, whose term expires in 2012.

District 4

Because of its large population, District 4 has two school board representatives. Both seats are up for re-election this year.

However, with the unexpected death last month of board member Gerald Totten, the school board plans to appoint a new member to serve the remaining 10 months of his term. The appointee can choose to run for the seat, as can anyone from District 4 who meets residency requirements.

Six people applied for the seat: Mary Harris, a retired Chatham County teacher; Gary Leonard, a sixth-grade language arts and social studies teacher at Chatham Charter School; retired Chatham County teacher Trudy Walters; Jonathan Hart, an IT specialist at the State Employee Credit Union in Raleigh; Stephen Burke, an accountant with the N.C. Department of Transportation; and Carlos Simpson, who did not include a résumé on his application, The board will appoint the new member Feb. 8, with the swearing-in to follow Feb. 15.

Check out the Indy's Triangulator blog, where there is a link to the applications.

Deb McManus also represents District 4.

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