Doubts from multiple parties came to a head at a public hearing Tuesday to address a Wake County Board of Education redistricting proposal put forth by the Shanahan Law Group (SLG).
The school board retained Shanahan in February to redraw the lines of school board districts as mandated every 10 years after the federal census.
The law firm has generated criticism from citizens and the community group Great Schools in Wake for refusing to release exact data about seven voter tabulation district splits.
The board’s redistricting guidelines call for districts to be contiguous and to split no voter tabulation districts (precincts) if possible.
The law firm claims the splits are necessary to make all districts as equal as possible (about 100,110 residents each).
SLG did not make clear exactly how many residents would move from one district to another in the splits. The firm has denied public records requests from Great Schools and the media, citing attorney-client privilege.
“I understand that the board stressed to the public that they want transparency in the process, but there has not been transparency,” said Raleigh resident Mary Kelley. “We have not seen specific boundary lines.”
Although the board’s guidelines asked SLG to avoid considering voter party affiliation “to the extent practicable,” Districts 7 and 9 are two of the most hotly contested school board districts in the county.
Under the current map, as of April 29, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by only about 3,000 registered voters in District 7 and about 2,000 voters in District 9.
Only more detailed information about the exact voters gained or lost in the three splits that affect Districts 7 and 9 would allow for an exact calculation of party affiliation in each district.
An even thinner margin exists between Democrats and Republicans in District 3. All data available shows that SLG’s plan would drop the Democratic lead in that district from more than 1,000 voters on the current map to just 26 voters.
Once again, no one but Shanahan can tell the exact number of voters gained or lost because the law firm is keeping details about the split of voter tabulation district 19-06 secret. This voter tabulation district is currently in District 3 but would give a portion of its population to District 1.
The District 3 seat, currently held by Kevin Hill, is up for reelection this fall. Hill’s Republican challenger, Heather Losurdo, remains within the District 3 limits.
The other Democrat-held districts on the ballot in October are Districts 4, 5 and 6.
Kieran Shanahan, head of SLG and former mayor of Raleigh, is a well-known conservative.
Yevonne Brannon, chair of Great Schools in Wake, points out that the SLG plan creates an odd split between Districts 4 and 5.
Part of voter tabulation district 01-20, currently in District 4, would go to District 5.
This split seems to be a fix for the loss of five voter tabulation districts from District 5 to District 3.
District 5 needs to gain about 13,055 people based on census figures. District 3 needs to lose about 6,957 people.
Brannon called SLG’s process “a Band-Aid approach.”
“It’s like when you tell a white lie and try to fix it,” said Brannon. “It never gets better. It gets bigger. That’s where we are.
“If this did not involve politics, then it involved a lack of understanding,” said Brannon, speaking of the map as a whole.
Board Chair Ron Margiotta said he had not seen the voter tabulation district split data in question.
After Tuesday’s public hearing board member John Tedesco (District 2) said that he would welcome the release of the data.
After Shanahan released its plan last month, Great Schools in Wake took a hard look and came up with a revision that only splits four precincts instead of seven. The Great Schools proposal also reduces the number of voter tabulation districts split by five.
Great Schools had already released two of its own redistricting plans in April based on census data.
At the hearing Tuesday, residents unaffiliated with Great Schools also suggested alternatives.
Some speakers during the public hearing directly or indirectly addressed comments by Tedesco and board member Chris Malone (District 1), quoted and paraphrased in the News and Observer. The speakers felt that the published comments suggested that Tedesco and Malone would not heed public input into the redistricting process.
“Of course I will,” said Tedesco after the hearing.
Tedesco stressed that the redistricting process has been thorough, with board members meeting multiple times with SLG and conducting a work session to address the plan.
“I’m opposed to some board members saying, ‘Let’s move one line here,’” he added. “That’s where you get into gerrymandering.”