Buncombe County School Board members and elected Democrats say they were blindsided by the General Assembly’s passage this month of a bill that mandates redrawing the county’s election districts and changing the school board elections from county-wide to district voting.
Critics say the bill — which was opposed by all but one of Buncombe’s House and Senate representatives in the General Assembly, and by all of the current seven school board members — was “rammed through without public comment and without discussion” in the Republican-controlled State Assembly, according to state Rep. Caleb Rudow (D-Buncombe). Some Democratic representatives contend the move was part of an effort to get more Republicans on school board seats.
Supporters of the bill, HB 66, contend that at-large county-wide voting gives an advantage to candidates from population-dense Asheville — which tends to vote liberal — to the disadvantage of candidates from less-populated rural areas, where voters are more conservative.
Although school board elections are ostensibly nonpartisan, the Buncombe board currently consists of five Democrats, one Republican, and one Independent.
The new law, which does not require the governor’s signature, requires voters to choose among candidates living in their district, plus one at-large board position instead of voting for all seven members at large under the previous system.
It also mandates the creation of six new election boundaries with relatively equal populations. The new districts must be drawn using U.S. Census data by Feb. 1. Critics also complained about the expense of redistricting, estimated to be as much as $100,000.
It does not change attendance districts for the Buncombe County Schools system’s more than 22,000 students. Nor does it affect elections for the Asheville City Schools board.
Democrats say a small contingent of Republicans, including a trio of school board candidates who lost their races last year, urged Daniel to work the legislation into HB 66.
“This is a small, very right Republican group, who felt as though they didn’t get what they wanted in the school board election, and so they’re trying to change the rules to increase their chances of getting more Republicans on the school board,” said Lindsay Prather, a House Democrat from Candler who represents western and southern Buncombe County and who sits on the Assembly’s Local Government Committee.
Republican Sen. Warren Daniel of Morganton, whose district includes eastern Buncombe County, led the change, adding an amendment to a bill that initially focused on Catawba County school systems.
Part of the bill’s goal was to “localize the election” and “bring the candidate closer to their individual constituents,” Daniel told Asheville Watchdog.
Daniel said he was influenced by people on the 2022 campaign trail who said he needed to make school board elections a legislative priority. By spring, constituents were backing the effort on social media and through grassroots promotion.
“School District Voting has backing!” Buncombe County GOP chair Doug Brown said in a May 26 email to party members. “This opens the door for Republican School Board members to get elected. We need 300 emails to go to Senator Daniel by May 31st.”
Daniel has offered the board legislative resources and staff to assist with the redrawing of districts, but board members and Democrats are worried about the outcome if they accept the offer.
Michael Bitzer, chairman of Catawba College’s Department of Political Science and History, said ongoing redistricting efforts in North Carolina are “attempts to rewrite the rules of the game of politics” at both state and local levels.
“What a politician who is able to redraw district lines is going to do is redraw the lines that are best favorable to his or her political party,” said Bitzer, author of Redistricting and Gerrymandering in North Carolina.
“That’s just that. When we talk about redistricting, we’re talking about the most partisan activity in American politics … because if you have the ability to draw the lines, you have the ability to determine who gets elected.”
“It was very, very underhanded”
According to emails obtained by The Watchdog, Democratic Sen. Julie Mayfield alerted the board May 22 to Daniel’s amendment. The bill was ratified 17 days later on June 8.
The seven-member school board voted unanimously June 1 to support a resolution opposing the legislation. Democratic representatives Caleb Rudow, Eric Ager, and Prather spoke in opposition to the bill on the House floor June 7, decrying a process they said gave people little time to voice their opinion.
But by the time the bill made it to the House, no changes could be made.
“I just feel like it (the amendment) was very, very underhanded,” at-large school board member Amanda Simpkins said. “If it had been in there at the beginning, my guess is 1,000 percent it would have been amended because all of the legislators other than him (Daniels) that represent us are not in favor of it.”
Board member Rob Elliot, who said he sent Daniel emails but has not heard back, echoed frustrations about a lack of transparency.
“We have put together as clear communication as possible to explain what our students and staff need,” Elliot said. “That was ignored and instead what we got in return was this, without any communication. So yeah, it is partisan.”
Mayfield said Daniel told her in January or February he was thinking about pursuing the legislation and then called her May 9 and said he was “possibly going to introduce it to the redistricting committee” that day. She said she voiced opposition both times and, in the latter instance, immediately texted Superintendent Rob Jackson, school board chair Ann Franklin, and vice chair Amy Churchill about Daniel’s intentions.
Board members voiced frustration that Daniel still had not spoken to them or responded to messages about the bill as of mid-June.
Daniel did take a call with Jackson, Franklin, and Mayfield, said board member Amy Churchill and Mayfield.
In an emailed statement, Jackson said the current election process had “yielded politically and ideologically diverse representatives” since at least 1975.
“Although the newly-passed statute will require BCS to redraw electoral districts in a way that may no longer align with our existing attendance zones for our neighborhood schools, we remain confident that dedicated and talented Board Members will continue to be elected by the community to lead our schools,” the statement read.
Franklin, the school board chair, did not respond to requests for comment.
Redistricting cost remains unclear
The new law triggers potentially tens of thousands of dollars in costs related to redistricting.
Daniel said he heard the process could cost between $20,000 and $100,000.
Board of Education Attorney Dean Shatley said he has contacted demographers and a law firm to find out how much the redistricting might cost and is awaiting a quote.
Board members, General Assembly members, and Shatley said the project will be complex, especially because some census blocks mix both Buncombe County Schools and Asheville City Schools districts.
“That’s not ideal,” Shatley told board members during their June 1 meeting. “After talking with a demographer, it’s going to be very time-intensive… to really figure out how (we are) going to draw the lines.”
Board members framed the cost in terms of teacher salaries.
“It will be many teachers’ salaries,” Elliot said. The salary for a new teacher is $37,000, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
“The idea was at least two years old”
District elections were proposed for Buncombe school board in the 2021-2022 legislative session in House Bill 118 by then Republican state Sen. Chuck Edwards. The Buncombe school board voted to oppose the bill, and it was eventually withdrawn from the House.
“The idea was at least two years old,” Daniel said. “When I started campaigning and talking to folks in Buncombe County … especially [for] Republicans, it was an issue that just kind of constantly when you asked them their priorities, this was always one of them.”
In a newsletter before the bill passed, Daniel said he “received many, many emails and phone calls from Buncombe County residents in favor of these changes. I also received emails and phone calls not in favor of the bill.”
School board members and General Assembly Democrats said the redistricting will happen because a “small, vocal group” wanted it.
They pointed to three Republican-backed candidates, Kim Poteat, Greg Parks, and Sara Disher Ratliff, who ran unsuccessfully for the Enka, Erwin, and Reynolds districts respectively. Some have been vocal in their support of HB 66.
Brown, the Buncombe County GOP chair, said he didn’t know if the three talked to Daniel about HB 66. The Watchdog tried to contact each, but reached only Poteat, who said the bill was “common sense.”
When asked, Poteat would not say whether she had spoken directly with Daniel about the bill.
Brown said he has talked to Daniel about school districts and said he “handed him a letter” during a recent convention and told Daniel, “This is one thing we want done.”
In an email to The Watchdog, Brown said that HB 66 “is not about affecting election results; HB 66 is about getting a fair playing field. [The] trend towards school district voting instead of at-large voting: this is a natural trend as the difference between conservative values and progressive ideologies widens, voters want to know who is an R and who is a D.”
Asked about the seeming contradiction between what he said in his email and the May 26 GOP email, Brown responded:
“Now with H(B)66 … the people who live in their districts get to vote for their representatives without the extra players from around the county tilting the scales in favor of the D team.”
Daniel said he heard from people who wanted “at least some voice” on the board.
“There’s a lot of people on the conservative side of thinking that the current board is sort of monolithic in terms of their philosophy,” Daniel said. “They wanted to have some diversity of thought.”
The bill specifically prohibits partisan considerations and election results data in drawing new lines, he noted.
“It by no means means that somebody from another political persuasion is going to get elected,” Daniel said. “It just means that whoever is elected will be a candidate who’s closer to their local district in terms of who they represent.”
Board member Amy Churchill, a Republican, criticized HB 66 on social media. Churchill said she realizes nothing in politics is truly nonpartisan, but said she believes strongly “that you should check your party affiliation at the door when you’re sitting on the school board.”
Ramming through policy?
Mayfield said she was unhappy with the process more than the outcome.
“I’m not happy with it, and that’s not because I have a philosophical opposition to districts.” Mayfield said. “ I think districts are fine. My issue with this is that this is about the process, and that this was not done with any kind of public engagement or public outreach.”
Board members said they felt the amendment was “snuck” into the bill to prevent debate.
Responding to that allegation, Daniel said “in legislative terms, this wasn’t a fast process,” adding redistricting had been discussed for a couple years.
“I shared the bill with my colleagues and the local school board probably a week or 10 days before we started moving with it,” he said.
Mayfield said she understood why board members are frustrated. “They didn’t have the conversation with Senator Daniel in January, and they didn’t have the conversation with Senator Daniel in early May,” she said.
Prather, Rudow, and Ager said the bill was rushed and Democrats weren’t invited to the negotiations.
“We shouldn’t make policy that is recommended by a partisan group, and then gets rammed through without public comment and without discussion,” Rudow said.
“It was done in a fairly sneaky way,” Ager said. “The willingness to try every trick in the book to have their political side win really just shows how difficult our political process is now. … People don’t feel like they have a voice, and in a democracy when people don’t feel like they have a voice, things get really ugly really quickly.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Andrew R. Jones is a Watchdog investigative reporter. Email email@example.com.