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Bill would upend Wake school board elections 

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If you don't like redistricting, redistrict again. That's the attitude of lawmakers supporting a bill that would upend how Wake County school board members are elected and how long some will serve.

Senate Bill 325 would redraw school board districts and reconfigure elections to favor conservatives. It was introduced by Sens. Neal Hunt and Chad Barefoot, both Republicans representing Wake County.

Voter registration statistics obtained by INDY Week show that proposed districts, shown in Map Nos. 2 and 3 above, would give Wake County Republicans a much stronger advantage than they currently hold.

Under the present map—No. 1 above—Republicans outnumber Democrats in only one school board district. The new boundaries would make four out of nine districts predominantly Republican.

But just because a district has more Democrats than Republicans doesn't mean it leans Democrat.

For instance, Republican board member John Tedesco represents a district made up of 42 percent Democrats and 32 percent Republicans. His district goes to show that unaffiliated voters can skew conservative.

According to an analysis by David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University, five districts favor conservatives under the new maps: Districts 1, 2, 6, 7 and B.

"The new school board districts are clearly drawn to help Republicans," McLennan wrote in an email to INDY Week. "I could easily see a 5-4 Republican majority and perhaps a 6-3 majority if things really went well at the top of the ticket."

Current districts

 DemocratRepublicanUnaffiliated
District 139.8%33.1%26.7%
District 241.8%32.0% 25.8%
District 335.7% 34.7% 29.3%
District 465.5% 11.7% 22.5%
District 539.7% 25.2% 34.5%
District 645.2% 26.2% 28.2%
District 745.2% 29.9% 34.6%
District 830.1% 35.0% 34.5%
District 932.4% 30.8% 36.3%

Proposed districts

 DemocratRepublicanUnaffiliated
District 139.5% 35.4% 24.9%
District 234.9%38.1%26.8%
District 3 51.2%20.1% 28.3%
District 465.7% 14.2% 19.9%
District 540.8% 27.5% 31.4%
District 632.0% 37.4% 30.4%
District 732.6% 36.8% 30.4%
District A48.4%24.1%27.3%
District B35.1%37.0%27.8%

To redraw the new districts, conservative map-makers would have used precinct-by-precinct breakdowns of how people voted in the last school board elections. Those records have not been made public.

Republicans, who controlled the school board at the time, redrew the districts to be more conservative in 2011. But the unexpected happened: Even though Republican-drawn districts were more favorable to conservatives, Democrats swept all five seats that year.

Some political observers say the General Assembly's redrawing of school board boundaries is unprecedented, but that's untrue. Gerry Cohen, a longtime legal staffer at the Legislature, says he has participated in the redrawing of local school board districts roughly a dozen times over the past 30 years. Cohen helped redraw the Durham County school board districts and the Wake districts in 1981.

He said some board members' terms were also shortened during the process.

That's what this legislation would achieve: It shortens the terms of the five Democrats who currently hold a majority on the nine-member board.

"It is un-American and undemocratic to lengthen one term and shorten another," says Democratic board member Christine Kushner, who is now in a Republican-leaning district.

Special elections would be held in May 2014 for all nine board members, even though the current majority members are not scheduled to face re-election until November 2015.

The new date would also extend the terms of key Republicans John Tedesco and Deborah Prickett, who are up for re-election this year.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan will also seek a second term next year. That means a statewide Republican primary will be likely in May 2014 as the GOP selects a candidate that could defeat Hagan in the fall.

In that scenario, Republican turnout could easily outpace the Democrats', giving local GOP candidates an edge in the technically nonpartisan school board elections.

In a brief interview, just before a Wake County delegation meeting, Hunt declined to elaborate, saying only that the new districts have been drawn to make the county more politically competitive.

Divisions over student assignment plans have crippled the school board over the past four years. The new bill could further handicap possible solutions.

Democratic school board members released a new framework for student assignment earlier this month, but, due to shortened term lengths, it might be impossible for them to complete the plan.

Current term lengths would allow Democrats in the majority to institute a new plan that would take effect in 2014–15; they oversee the plan in its first year. However, if the proposed legislation passes, Democrats could face re-election just before the new plan takes effect.

"I would hope we wouldn't have everything overturned," said Democratic board member Susan Evans. "Having the potential for all nine seats to turn over at the same time could just wreak chaos on everything, including the work of the last few years."

The new framework is designed to prevent high concentrations of poor or low-performing students in a school. It's a provision Republicans would almost certainly remove on principle, if they regain control of the school board.

In an email to fellow board members Tuesday, Tedesco suggested that school board Democrats could be experiencing retaliation.

"I tried to warn you," Tedesco wrote. "Don't overreach and don't disregard the concerns of other elected bodies or they would not be happy."

In an ominous bit of foreshadowing he continued: "Wait 'til you see the next piece of legislation. Preliminary drafts suggest it's a doozy!"

This article appeared in print with the headline "Be cruel to your school."

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