March 10, 2014

Union Co. parents plan to proceed with redistricting lawsuit

The move occurs as colleagues mourn sudden death of school board member who had introduced controversial redistricting plan.

As family and colleagues lauded a veteran Union County school board member who died over the weekend, parents vowed to press on with plans for a lawsuit to try to stop a redistricting plan he supported.

John Crowder, 77, who died of a stroke, had made the surprise motion last Tuesday that led to the plan’s approval. The motion was approved 7-1. A final vote on the issue had not been on the agenda.

Redistricting will move several thousand students to different schools to deal with overcrowding.

Parent Chris Bernard, a lawyer helping with the lawsuit, said Monday that he and other attorneys will discuss whether they should briefly delay filing the suit after Crowder’s death.

“Obviously we’re very sensitive to that issue,” Bernard said.

Even if there is a short delay, Bernard said he expects the suit to be filed this week. Parents aim to challenge the vote on transparency and procedural grounds.

Many are concerned about the disruption for their children, while others worried that property values might fall if different schools are tied to their communities. Parents also worried about students attending older schools or ones with lower test scores.

Several parents launched a website for their fight, and they are seeking donations for the lawsuit, under the name Citizens for Adequate Public Schools.

The original redistricting plan would have seen about 5,800 students out of 41,800, or 14 percent of the total, move to a new school. The school board modified the plan last week, and the estimated redistricting number dropped to about 3,200, the school board chairman has said.

Three of the district’s 53 schools are at maximum capacity and had their enrollment capped this school year.

A father’s legacy

Meanwhile, Crowder was recalled as a quiet leader who sought equal education for all students.

Longtime Union County educator Bea Colson knew Crowder well. She called him “a gentle giant” who was always willing to listen to all sides of an issue, then come down on the side of what was best for the children. That’s why people in the community needed him to serve for so long, Colson said.

School board member Sherry Hodges said she appreciated Crowder sharing his wisdom with colleagues, while board Vice Chair Marce Savage called him “a walking piece of history for education in Union County.”

Crowder’s daughter, Faye Crowder-Phillips, said her father’s legacy was one of caring that all children received the same quality education, regardless of their background. It was a worldview shaped by growing up in the segregated South, in Anson County, she said.

“Some people are born with a destiny over their life,” Crowder-Phillips said. “His was to make sure all children could receive an equal education.”

Funeral information was not finalized yet.

Crowder had served on the school board, and a predecessor board in Monroe, for 31 years. That’s one of the longest tenures in the state, according to the North Carolina School Boards Association.

Many comments on anti-redistricting social media sites Monday praised Crowder and his history of service. But a few still objected to his role in the redistricting vote. As one Facebook commenter put it, “This man was one of those responsible for this mess.”

School board members have been flooded with emails, texts and phone messages both before and after last week’s vote. Some in the audience yelled or cried when the vote was taken, while others were escorted out of the meeting.

The night after the vote, Crowder downplayed any stress over the issue. He told the Observer that over the years, people got upset whenever redistricting personally affected them.

Crowder-Phillips declined to talk about redistricting or the impact the issue had on her father.

New election needed

Crowder’s term on the board expires in December 2016.

That seat will now be on the November ballot to fill the unexpired term starting in December, said John Whitley, the county Board of Elections director.

The school board has the option to make an interim appointment to fill Crowder’s seat until the election is held. He represented Monroe and nearby areas.

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