Less than two months after the General Assembly passed a bill requiring the Buncombe County Board of Education to redraw its election districts and change from countywide to district voting, the legislation appears to be unfeasible and may require revision.
A demographer and an attorney hired by the board recently met with nonpartisan General Assembly staff to explain that the nature of census data and census blocks in Buncombe County will likely prevent House Bill 66 from going into effect as written.
“This issue demonstrates the problems that can arise when legislators do things to a school system without involving the school system, asking questions or exploring the implications,” Democratic Sen. Julie Mayfield said. “It’s really unfortunate that we’re in this situation.”
Amy Churchill, the only Republican on the board, said Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Morganton, who amended the bill to include the Buncombe mandate, should have done more research before doing so.
“Some of this could have been corrected, something as simple as Daniel holding off long enough to just pull up some of the simplest maps that we have in this area,” Churchill said. “It didn’t take the demographers very long to figure out this was going to be a problem.”
The bill, which requires the redrawing of districts by Feb. 1, 2024, drew widespread criticism from Democratic legislators and the school board. It was opposed by all but one of Buncombe’s House and Senate representatives in the General Assembly, and by the entire school board.
The bill’s supporters say 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.
Unable to amend the bill by the time it reached the House, opponents called it a Republican attempt to wrest control from the majority Democratic board, though HB 66 does not require school board elections to be partisan. The Board of Education also unanimously passed a resolution June 1 opposing the bill, which was ratified one week later.
Board of Education Attorney Dean Shatley said a county-hired demographer and attorney — Asheville-based FrontWater Geo Planning + Design and Raleigh-based Tharrington Smith — looked at Buncombe’s census data and found two major barriers to the bill’s requirements, “particular issues that we believe make it right now …not feasible to comply with the legislation,” Shatley said.
Asheville Watchdog contacted Daniel’s office by phone and email but did not receive a response.
A look at the two barriers
The first barrier, a geographical one, is a provision requiring the new districts to be contiguous, Shatley explained.
“And that’s, actually, we believe impossible, because there are islands of Buncombe County Schools within the Asheville City Schools zones and vice versa,” Shatley said, adding that in some neighborhoods, there are strips of land in a BCS district surrounded by ACS land.
A legislative fix to this could be fairly easy, Shatley said.
The second barrier is more complex and may be insurmountable, Shatley said, namely the bill’s mandate that only 2020 census data be used to draw the new lines and create districts with relatively equal populations.
Some census blocks contain a mix of ACS and BCS districts, making it much more difficult to create balanced districts using blocks established years ago and when Buncombe’s population was smaller. It grew by more than 4,000 between 2020 and July 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We can’t do it just looking at 2020 census data,” Shatley said, noting they may ultimately have to use real estate data.
General Assembly staff members are reviewing the situation, Shatley said, and will talk to Daniel.
Board of Education members, Democratic politicians and others sounded the alarm about these barriers in the weeks leading up to HB 66’s passage. Shatley spoke to these complexities during the board’s June 1 meeting, just before it passed its resolution opposing HB 66.
Asked what he thought about the bill’s passage despite their concerns, Shatley said, “I want to stay positive right now. … We want to work with our legislative delegation and try to find solutions.”
Shatley said the board wanted to take Daniel up on his offer to use nonpartisan legislative staff to do the redistricting work, but questions about who will draw the lines remain.
Should the board continue to use contracted help, the full cost, which is unclear at the moment, will come out of its current budget. Shatley said the board already has spent about $5,000.
The Watchdog requested documents showing BCS’s estimated cost for the project.
“There is not a public-facing document that specifically lists the (spending) for the redistricting as the Interim Budget does not go into that level of detail because so much remains unknown with a current lack of an approved state budget,” BCS spokesperson Stacia Harris said, adding the school repurposed $100,000 of its budget to accommodate the project.
BCS Superintendent Rob Jackson did not respond to a request for comment on the barriers HB 66 faces.
Daniel, who represents only a portion of Buncombe County and is co-chair of the Senate’s Redistricting and Elections Committee, told The Watchdog in June he added the redistricting amendment because of feedback he received on the 2022 campaign trail.
At least some of that feedback was from newly elected Buncombe County GOP Chair Doug Brown, who 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 (school redistricting) we want done.”
In emails and party newsletters earlier in the year, Brown touted HB 66 as a way to get more Republicans in school board seats, encouraging party members to contact Daniel and show their support.
The passage of HB 66 is Brown’s and the party’s first high-profile success following his ascendancy at the March GOP convention, which saw him replace former chair Glenda Weinert.
Asked if he wanted to comment on HB 66’s status, Brown said he was not able to and directed The Watchdog to Daniel’s office.
Democrats The Watchdog spoke to were aware of the bill’s barriers.
“This is a significant problem because we now know that complying with H66 will impact ACS in addition to BCS,” Mayfield, the Democratic senator, said. “Had there been any meaningful engagement with the school system to explore the implications of the bill, as I urged, we would have known this before the bill passed. Now we are faced with the possibility of significantly impacting thousands of families.”
Mayfield said she has asked BCS to work with ACS and try to quantify those potential impacts.
Mayfied and Democratic representatives Lindsay Prather, Eric Ager, and Caleb Rudow each spoke out on their respective floors against the bill before it passed. Asked about the barriers the bill now faces, they reiterated concerns it had been rushed through, motivated by partisan aspirations and without proper vetting.
“I was not at all surprised to hear there were logistical issues in drawing the map,” Prather said. “Legislation that gets rushed through without proper vetting or input tends to be difficult to implement and/or cause unintended consequences.”
Rudow said he wished “folks would take a step back from partisanship and realize that not only do we come to better solutions when we work together, but we can avoid these kinds of problems that happen when bills are rushed through for partisan purposes.”
Ager called the bill a “great example of how to do bad legislation.” He said it would have been much better to bring together stakeholders and demography experts to reach a consensus on what was possible “before just ramming the legislation through. This is a mess and will take work in the legislature to resolve. I am hopeful that the majority party will work with us to fix the situation in time for the next election.”
Although school board elections are ostensibly nonpartisan, the Buncombe board currently consists of five Democrats, one Republican, and one Independent.
“The cost of all of this is taking money away from Buncombe County Schools,” board member Kim Plemmons said. “It is not a good use of taxpayer dollars. For me, we should be spending time and money on students, teachers, and staff in BCS. They are and will always be my No. 1 priority.”
Board member Rob Elliot condemned the bill in a June 29 Facebook post as unnecessarily expensive and strategically flawed.
“This law will cost Buncombe County Schools several teachers’ salaries worth of county taxpayer dollars that will have to be set aside in (the) next years,” he said. “This election law bill targeting our school board elections is the opposite of fiscally conservative and will erode the representative democratic process we’ve had in place since at least 1975.”
Churchill, the board member who was initially the most vocal online about the bill, said she has not spoken to Daniel since the bill passed.
Other board members did not respond to The Watchdog’s request for comment.
“An undercover trend”
It is not unusual for bills to pass the General Assembly and face logistical barriers soon afterward, said Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University.
“(The General Assembly is) underfunded and they’re understaffed, and it is not unusual that there are implementation issues with bills,” Cooper said. “One recent example is the abortion bill where the General Assembly went back and made some changes to the bill after it was passed but before it was implemented. They did it to avoid the likelihood that a lawsuit would win but also as a correction. And they essentially admitted, ‘Hey, we didn’t write this as clearly as we could have.’”
HB 66 could meet a similar fate, Cooper said. It could be modified by an entirely new bill or even face a lawsuit, if differences are insurmountable.
Board members and elected officials have raised concerns about the Republican-controlled General Assembly drawing new school board district lines in favor of Republican voters, though HB 66 prohibits partisan considerations when drawing the new districts.
But when the first maps are drafted, those concerns could remain.
“Very few legislators will say they’re going to draw lines to benefit their own party, yet we know gerrymandering happens,” Cooper said. “And gerrymandering certainly happens at the local level, and often it gets ignored because it’s local, and it’s wonky. … This was true when the Democrats were in control and now that the Republicans are, they have shown for decades that they are more than happy to draw lines to benefit their party.”
More importantly, Cooper said, HB 66 represents a Republican tactic to create and pass local bills, a breed of legislation that doesn’t have to go to the Democratic governor’s desk.
“An undercover trend, in my opinion, is that this General Assembly has been using local bills to slowly change the state away from any threat of the governor’s veto,” Cooper said. “Local bills matter. Local redistricting matters.”
Filing for the next Buncombe County School Board election opens July 5, 2024.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.