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School boards target of legislative redistricting

Some N.C. Republican lawmakers aren’t content that through partisan redistricting in 2011 they’ve pretty much locked up a majority of seats in the state legislature for at least a decade or more. They’ve turned their attention now to grabbing advantage at the local level by redrawing district lines for school board races.

Last Wednesday two local bills were introduced in the N.C. Senate to make big changes in the election of school board members in the state’s biggest and third-biggest school districts – Wake County (Raleigh) and Guilford County (Greensboro). It was the last day local bills could be introduced.

Guilford bill S317, filed by first-term Republican Sen. Trudy Wade, caught the school board and her legislative delegation by surprise. It would make the Guilford board partisan, limit terms to two years instead of four and redraw district lines. Revamping the school board has been a priority of Conservatives for Guilford County, a local political group. Two years ago, GOP legislators were successful at changing district lines for the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, a move that gave Republicans control of the board for the first time in 14 years.

The Wake bill, S325, which would institute at-large seats for two of the nine board seats, also had a partisan impetus. The Republican majority on the Wake County Board of Commissioners, frequently at odds with the Democrat-led school board, requested the at-large seat change. Currently all seats are from districts.

The bill, sponsored by Republicans Neal Hunt of Raleigh and Chad Barefoot of Wake Forest, doesn’t go as far as the GOP commissioners had urged though. They had asked legislators to create four at-large seats. They’re still hopeful it may.

The bill would redraw district lines. It would also postpone this fall’s elections, lengthening the terms by several months of the three Republicans on the board as well as the term of one Democrat and shortening by a year the terms of the remaining five Democrats on the board.

The moves, which the Democratic majority on the board opposes, are clearly aimed at helping Republicans gain an election advantage. The redrawn lines would put at least two current Democrats on the board in the same district, and create one at-large district that leans heavily suburban. Those moves could shift the board balance to Republicans. With the legislature controlled by Republicans, the bill reportedly has a good chance of passing.

Blatantly partisan redistricting moves aren’t new. Democrats engaged in them in congressional and legislative remapping when they held power. We decried the Democrats for such moves, too.

Those partisan manipulations are a huge reason why for years we’ve urged lawmakers to get out of the business of drawing district lines, and leave it to a nonpartisan panel.

Legislators crafting districts to lock up seats for one party is a slap in the face to voters. It’s voters who should get to pick their representatives, not the other way around. And it adds insult to injury that some lawmakers appear to be acting as puppets doing the bidding of special interest groups to fundamentally alter the power of specific citizens’ votes.

There may be nothing the public can do to change the power-grab fest that some N.C. lawmakers are engaging in. But legislators should know this – the public is watching. Such blatant manipulation of voting districts for political advantage might yet backfire at the voting booth.

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