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Legislators Take Aim At Local School Boards

State Senate chamber
Dave DeWitt
File photo of N.C. General Assembly in Raleigh, 2021.

Being on a school board is a little like being the head chef at the local Applebee’s. You don’t get to choose the ingredients and it’s not your recipe, but if someone doesn’t like the Bourbon Street Steak, you’re going to hear about it.

In other words, school boards in North Carolina have relatively little power but plenty of responsibility. And it’s been that way for a long time.

“One of the things that North Carolina did in the depression was remarkable,” says Michael Crowell, a professor of public law and government at UNC-Chapel Hill. “North Carolina decided that the state, the Legislature, would be responsible for the operating expenses in all the school systems.”

To this day, unlike in other states, school boards have no taxing authority. Their budgets are determined by the state and local county commissioners. And in the 1960s, the Legislature passed a law setting all local school boards at five members, elected at-large.

Other than that, the Legislature pretty much ignored school boards.

Until desegregation.

Starting in the 1970s and extending until the 1990s, school boards consolidated as their districts did. It was a tense and sometimes violent time. In places like Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, Greenville and others, school boards grew to as many as 12 members, as city and county boards combined.

Now, fewer than half of the state’s school boards still cling to the model of five members, elected at-large. Most are bigger, and include some combination of members elected from districts or at-large.

But whatever changes have come have always been either through the courts due to the Voting Rights Act - or from the ground up, starting at the local level and eventually getting approved by the General Assembly.

Until this year.

“These maps were drawn without any public input, against the will of the school board, and for transparently partisan reasons,” said State Senator Josh Stein, a democrat from Raleigh, debating a bill on the floor of the Senate that would change how Wake County School Board members are elected. A separate bill would affect the Guilford School Board. Both would re-write district maps and change the balance of at-large and district representatives. “This legislation is about a Republican majority in the general assembly inserting itself into local affairs in order to exact partisan payback.”

That Republican majority says that’s not true. The bills’ sponsors say they want to increase voter turnout or ensure rural views are represented on school boards.

Whatever the motivation, this level of attention from the General Assembly is a new development. Before he joined the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, Michael Crowell spent decades helping local school boards navigate the complexities of re-drawing districts. He says he’s never before seen Legislators get involved in re-drawing school board maps.

“Republicans who previously have not liked a method of local election and have had no way to influence how it’s done have been put in a position where, in fact, they can do something about it now,” Crowell said.

The bill changing school board elections in Wake County has passed the Senate. The Guilford County bill will likely come up for a vote there soon. Both will still need to be passed by the House before they become law.*

*The original version of this story indicated that Gov. Pat McCrory would have to sign the bill before it became law. In fact, according to an amendment to the NC State Constitution ratified in 1996, Governors are specifically exempt from having veto power over bills that apply to fewer than 15 counties in the state.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Feature News Editor. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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