Op-Ed By: Rick Mercier
Johnston County Board of Education Candidate
Were you among the recipients of a letter from the Johnston County Board of Education recently requesting your support for district elections for board members starting in 2022?
You weren’t? Well, you can take solace in the fact that you’re in the vast majority of folks who were passed over in this highly selective engagement campaign. According to the board, only 550 or so residents (in a county with over 133,000 registered voters) were sent the letter. Mostly, it appears, the recipients were hand-picked because of their connection to some elected body or other influential organization in the county. (I received the letter, presumably, because I am a candidate for school board.)
The runaway train trying to get this hastily conceived plan delivered to the General Assembly—which must authorize it by means of a “local bill” sponsored by our local legislative delegation—is being conducted by a school board committee consisting of Peggy Smith (committee chair), Ronald Johnson, Terri Sessoms and Tracie Zukowski. This committee wants to get the bill through the legislature this session so district voting can be implemented in the 2022 school board election. (As a side note, in an April 29 committee meeting in which the districts proposal was discussed, both Sessoms and Zukowski said they did not intend to run for re-election in 2022.)
School board members say that, as of this November, two areas of the county—McGee’s Crossroads and southern Johnston County—will no longer have representation on the board. They also have said voters expressed a desire for district elections during the 2018 school board race (even though they followed up on that supposed voter feedback by doing nothing concerning this issue until very recently).
Don’t get me wrong—district elections aren’t necessarily a bad idea. If the reform is the result of a fair and diligent process, with guidance from objective, outside experts and within a reasonable timeframe that allows for meaningful public input, this could be an opportunity to move Johnston County Public Schools and the county forward. But if it is rushed and not undertaken in a good-faith effort to produce a solution that is fair, inclusive and an accurate reflection of the will of the people, it will be an exercise that keeps the school system—and, by extension, the county—mired in an unacceptable past.
There are several critical factors to consider as part of any responsible deliberations over district elections. For starters, we can probably all agree that fair geographical representation on the school board is a good thing—and fair representation of all of the schools is even better. But making sure there is a balanced distribution of voters across all of the districts should be a desired outcome too. So should elections that have a reasonable chance of producing minority representation on the board—as well as a board that reflects the political diversity of 21st-century Johnston County. I’d like for the UNC School of Government to help us draw district lines that give us the best opportunity to achieve all of these objectives.
Another critical question is, Do we really want district seats to be voted on countywide instead of having each district seat decided by only voters in that district? The Johnston County Board of Commissioners has countywide voting for its district seats, and the result has been a board that is not at all representative of the diverse county in which we live. There is no racial or ideological diversity; the board doesn’t come close to reflecting the county, and it hasn’t in the 30 years that the commissioners’ districts system has been in place. (Another issue with the commissioners’ system is the way the district lines are drawn. Smithfield, for example, is carved up in three pieces.)
There’s also this glaring problem with countywide voting for district seats: A candidate can lose (and even lose badly) in his or her district but still win the election. It happened in March when Michelle Pace Davis beat Fred Smith handily in their district in their Republican county commissioner primary, but Smith won overall (pending a protest). How does this type of outcome count as fair representation? Why force a representative on a district when the people of that district have rejected him?
We should also bear in mind that we don’t have to choose either all district or all at-large seats. Indeed, a combination of district and at-large seats could be the best answer. Perhaps five district seats and two at-large seats to start would be a good solution for us, but I’d be open to expanding the board to have seven district and two at-large seats if there were broad public support for that option.
There are a host of other questions, including whether to keep the school board races nonpartisan (yes, please!). There also is the matter of how we would transition to the new system. Do we stagger it? Do we have to do it all at once? Will some incumbents be “districted” out of seats? And would a couple of at-large seats be a fair way to remedy that potential problem?
Others before us have done this transition. Bringing in expertise from the UNC School of Government and perhaps the N.C. School Boards Association (NCSBA) would help us to sort out these issues.
It’s important to note that there is no one “correct” answer to the question of what’s the best way to do school board elections. Here is the breakdown of school systems across the state according to how they conduct school board elections or appointments (information provided by the NCSBA):
- number elected from districts by voters only within the district: 16
- number elected from districts by voters only within the district plus at-large seat(s): 20
- number elected from districts by voters across the county or administrative unit: 16
- number elected from districts by voters across the county or administrative unit plus at-large seat(s): 16
- number elected by voters at large: 45
- appointed: 2
The takeaway here is that we should feel free to implement any changes we want—or to keep the status quo. But we can’t let the school board rush this process along. This should be an intensely participatory process. If it takes awhile and requires the involvement of UNC School of Government and other outside expertise, so what? This matter is of critical importance to the long-term future of Johnston County Public Schools.
I urge you to tell the school board to slow down by using the online form on this webpage https://www.johnston.k12.nc.us/Page/21633 or by contacting board members individually using contact information that can be found at https://www.johnston.k12.nc.us/domain/86.
We must slow down the process and insist that the school board listen to our voices.