Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH – It was among a handful of tactics that reform-minded parents hoped would upset the balance of power on the Wake County School Board — adjust elections to even-numbered years and switch school board races from district-based to countywide.
The first change would increase voter turnout because school board candidates would be on the ballot with higher profile races for statewide and national office. The second would allow a wider range of voters to have a say on individual candidates elected to fill the board’s nine seats.
Ultimately, reformers hoped that a shake-up in how voters elected school board members would lead to a new majority on the board, one more friendly to neighborhood schools, flexible assignment schedules, and broader school choice.
But now that conservatives have captured a majority — resulting from four overwhelming victories in October and November — election reform is still on their radar.
“I would think without a doubt it will be included on the legislative agenda. That’s certainly one issue we want to put up there,” said Ron Margiotta, a school board member from the Apex and Holly Springs region.
Margiotta has long pushed for countywide elections. Last year, he proposed including the issue on school board’s 2008 agenda. The motion failed by a vote of 6-1, with Margiotta casting the lone vote in favor.
With four like-minded candidates joining him in December, though, the outcome could soon be different.
One major hurdle is gaining support in the General Assembly. The Wake County House delegation is split 6-3 in favor of Democrats; the Senate delegation is divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats.
Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Wake County Republican and long-time supporter of an election change, said lawmakers “still need to take a look at making modifications to the process to reflect the realities” of the county.
“Our primary objective is to have the board more responsible to parents and to taxpayers. Hopefully, the new board will be,” Dollar said.
Under legislation Dollar introduced earlier this year, five members of the school board would be elected district-based and four at-large. It would also switch elections to even-numbered years.
Four legislators from Wake County serve on the House committee where leaders assigned the bill in February, but the measure never come up for consideration and hasn’t gained the support of the entire delegation.
Even though lawmakers differ on the proposed shift, elected officials in towns surrounding Raleigh — such as Apex and Cary — have expressed support for the idea.
In the past, critics have argued that at-large races and a revision of the elections schedule could have negative implications, such as violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Some school board members have backed switching a portion of seats to at-large if it meant the board would have taxing authority.
Contacted by e-mail Thursday, school board chairman Kevin Hill said the issue belongs in the realm of the legislature. “As such, the board hasn’t discussed this and I have not had time to do any homework on it,” he said.
Supporters point to the Wake County Board of Commissioners, which is elected on an at-large basis for staggered four-year terms, as an example of successful countywide elections.
Joe Ciulla, president of the Wake Community Schools Alliance, sees the potential for an odd reversal on the issue, with advocates of more liberal policies beginning to push for a switch to at-large elections.
“The ray of hope may be that I think a lot of folks relied on the district-based elections to protect the status quo policies that were in place,” Ciulla said. “Now that we’ve shown that protection is not effective, maybe they’ll come around and decide that at-large is the way to go.”
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.