Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why Wake School Board Redistricting Matters in Regards to Our Accreditation

If you have been following this blog or the education news in Wake County, NC, you will know that the Wake County School System recently received an "Accredited Warned" review by the AdvancED independent accrediting agency, which gives the system a year to address shortcomings or risk losing its accreditation (which has implications for college admissions, scholarships, etc.).  The AdvancED report had little to say about any perceived failings on the part of the school system's instructional or even administrative staff; instead, they threatened to withdraw the accreditation because of inappropriate actions on the part of the elected school board.

I think the AdvancED report is pretty clear when it says:
Since December 1, 2009 the actions and decisions of the Wake County Board of Education
have resulted in creating a climate of uncertainty, suspicion, and mistrust throughout the
community.  ... (T)he Board of Education and Superintendent must work to gain the community’s trust and confidence in the school system and its ability to meet
the needs of all students.    
However, judging by how the Board is approaching the critical issue of legally-mandated redrawing of the School Board election districts, the Board members STILL haven't gotten the message.

Drawing up the boundaries for the nine different districts that elect the School Board members is legally required every 10 years after the national census, which provides the latest population data.  The point behind this is to give each citizen equal representation by having election districts of basically even populations.  The 2010 census shows that this is not currently the case in fast-growing Wake County, where some of the School Board election districts in the booming suburbs or outlying towns (like Wake Forest and Holly Springs) now have double the population of slower-growing urban centers (such as inside-the-Beltway Raleigh).  So the redistricting process requires that some voting precincts be moved out of the overpopulated districts and joined to the underpopulated districts in a way that makes sense.

This is not just an issue for the School Board; the same process is going on in all levels of government.  It is a process that should be nonpartisan and should be dedicated primarily to ensuring equal representation for all voters.  However, it is hard to keep the process from becoming politicized, although it can be done.  But the particular problem for the Wake County School Board is that if the redistricting is closed and politicized, not only will we end up with suspect voting districts (along with probably even MORE lawsuits), but it could actually threaten the accreditation of our schools.

However, the School Board does not seem concerned about keeping the redistricting open and transparent.  It began by awarding a contract for $10,000 for assistance with the redistricting, not to the regular WCPSS attorney, but to an openly partisan Republican lawyer, Kieran Shanahan, who was a four-term Republican member of the Raleigh City Council (you can read his bio here.)  It has not held any public meetings on the redistricting, nor published a timeline for when the proposed redistricting will be announced and approved.  Furthermore, sources say that Shanahan has been meeting with the board members either one-on-one or in groups of three or less in order to skirt the state's Open Meeting laws (the Board's attempts to avoid that law was one of the issues mentioned in the AdvancED report).

Contrast that with the approach taken by the city I live in, the Town of Cary.  On January 14, 2011, the town published a redistricting plan on its website, including the numbers in the Council Districts that need to be balanced, a timeline for action on the plan that is open to the public, and an intention to arrive at a final plan before the end of May in order to give potential candidates plenty of time to know where they might be campaigning before the candidate filing opens in July (you can read their announcement here).  They have been maintaining a redistricting website that not only explains the process, but has links to reports of the open working sessions and maps of the redistricting options under consideration.

Had the Board adopted such an approach to redistricting, it might have been a great thing to show AdvancED of the Board's commitment to regain the trust of the Wake County public.  To be fair, they hired Shanahan shortly before receiving the AdvancED recommendations (although I doubt they came as a great shock to the Board).

But I think there is still time to rectify the situation.  Recently, the Wake County chapter of the League of Women Voters, one of the oldest and most respected nonpartisan organizations that works for the improvement of government and the unbiased education of voters, has entered the fray.  (Full Disclosure note:  In my previous life, my first job out of college was working on energy and environmental education programs for the national staff of the League of Women Voters.  It was a great job and I believe them to be a great organization, full of integrity and dedicated to fairness, good government, and citizen education and empowerment.)  Volunteers from the League and from the Great Schools in Wake Coalition have developed a proposed redistricting map.  League volunteer Saroj Primlani took all the census data and entered it into a Wake County database, outlining the population and racial composition of every School Board voting precinct.  A group then developed a balanced redistricting plan that follows most of the common principles, including not dividing towns, keeping the districts contiguous, not diluting racial minorities, etc.  According to Primlani, the effort took about 10 hours of time to input and manipulate the data and come up with the new proposed districts.

The League and GSWC have shared their data and proposed plan with the School Board and with the public through a series of open houses around Wake County  I attended the one yesterday at Eva Perry library, which is where I got this data;  there is another one on Tuesday, April 19, from 4:00-7:00 PM at Cameron Village Library.  You can also access their plan online.  Here is an overview of the current districts.  Click here to see the existing School Board District detailed maps, and then here to see the LWV/GSWC proposed districts.

The League does not claim that their plan is necessarily the best or final solution.  However, they are putting it out to try to get the ball rolling in terms of public involvement with the redistricting.  They are urging the Board to put out its plan as soon as possible to allow time for public comment and to settle the matter in enough time to give candidates plenty of notice before the July filing season.  Since the data is now all available and categorized, and it took their committee only about 10 hours and no money to develop their plan, they are questioning why the lawyer who was awarded $10,000 in February to come up with a plan is taking so long.

Board Chair Ron Margiotta has claimed the Board wants the process to be transparent, but that their primary concern is coming up with a plan that will withstand court challenges.  But surely the best way to avoid lawsuits is to announce the plan as soon as possible with a maximum amount of public input and involvement in order to address issues before the deadline for a final decision, isn't it?  If the Board would work with the League of Women Voters, a renowned advocate for nonpartisanship and equity, that would only strengthen its case should it go to court.  It would also give us, the non-expert voters, a vote of confidence that the plan was fair and unbiased.  And it would have to look good to AdvancED as a major step in repairing the School Board's relationship with the public it is supposed to be serving.

So this has turned into a long and complicated post about something most people may not care about.  But my point is that if you live in Wake County, you should.   The way the redistricting process is handled may not only determine who gets elected to the School Board in the fall (which will, in turn, determine future school policy), it may also contribute to whether or not AdvancED decides to continue the accreditation of our school system.


  1. Gah, everything is so contentious. This video sums up nicely why one may avoid caring:

    Thank you for the analysis. What a mess, though! I like how Women Voters went about things :-)

  2. Redistricting can be tricky, but as the Town of Cary example shows, it can be open and transparent and not so contentious. Unfortunately, in the past the School Board majority has shown a tendency to shove things through in a blatantly partisan way. They can get away with that on internal decisions, such as the hiring of Tata as the superintendent, but if they try that with redistricting, they will get hit with another lawsuit.

    The latest budget shows that in the past year, they have paid the regular WCPSS lawyers about $150,000 to deal with the Open Meetings lawsuit, the Civil Rights lawsuit, and the AdvancED accreditation process. They are paying Shanahan $65,000 for redistricting and other legal work. If they come up with a bad redistricting plan and have to go to court to defend that, then we will have probably spent about one quarter of a million dollars JUST dealing with the legal and accreditation consequences of the Board's inappropriate decision-making process.

    That's a lot of money to waste, especially since it has been mainly created by the people who run from the "cut government waste" platform.