Members of the Johnston County School Board are considering changing the way they are elected. Currently, all seven school board members hold at-large seats. They are not required to live in any particular area or school attendance district.
In recent months, there has been growing interest among board members to explore the possibility of district elections as a way to guarantee all areas of Johnston County have equal representation. Without districts, the fear is that the majority – if not all – of school board members in coming years will be residents from the rapidly growing section of western Johnston County. Areas will less population in eastern and southern Johnston County could struggle to elect a candidate.
During their March monthly meeting, the school board agreed to form a committee to explore the possibility of district elections. Vice Chairman Peggy Smith was selected to chair the new committee.
“We have talked about districts (elected countywide) since before I became a member 12 plus years ago. It was not such a huge issues when every area of the district had a representative,” Smith said. “I asked for the committee to be formed to get a process in place. We have to get our legislative delegation’s support, get public support through public hearings and present a plan for how the districts would be designed. Because we currently have seven members on both BOE and County Commissioners, it makes sense for our proposal to mimic the County Commissioners districts, especially since to do otherwise would (1) cost thousands of dollars for the redrawing and (2) delay the process by at least a year. Meanwhile areas of the county are served but not by a resident of the district. Currently, each Board member is assigned an attendance area.”
Chairman Todd Sutton believes district elections are needed. “I am in agreement that we need to have districts for the Board of Education. I heard this a lot as I campaigned in 2018 for the Board Of Education. Having districts would eliminate areas such as South Johnston without a voice from their community at the table. The committee that I formed (March 10th) will start to explore additional information that needs to be addressed in order to move forward.”
School board member Ronald Johnson says he has some reservations about district elections. Regardless, Mr. Johnson said the Board of Education has more serious concerns they need to address first. “First and foremost, I believe we have more serious problems to deal with instead of focusing on how a group of people are elected.”
“I am cautious about switching from the current system, but I do understand the public’s desire to ensure their communities are adequately represented. If there was an overwhelming majority of elected board members from one area of Johnston County it would be a little more concerning. However, we have 7 board members that all reside in different parts of the county.”
“I want the entire county to hold me accountable for my actions, good and bad. If I only answer to one “district” or area, I have no accountability to people residing in other districts. I know there are different ways to elect officials, where it is a county wide vote for district seats, but I would personally like to remain an at-large candidate,” Johnson said.
Johnston County Commissioner Butch Lawter of Clayton says district elections for Commissioners works well and he looks forward to learning more from school leaders. “I believe the current system with the seven districts is working relatively well for County Commissioners. With that said, there has been some very preliminary discussions among the Commissioners about redrawing district boundaries based on the 2020 census data. The intent being to make sure the citizens of Johnston County are equally represented. I can understand the School Board wanting to do the same for Johnston County Public Schools. There are a lot of issues, and I am sure statutory limitations for both Boards to consider in making any changes to district boundaries or, in the School Board’s case, the method by which they are elected. I’m looking forward to learning more from the School Board committee about their reasoning and efforts to explore these changes.”
Before any election process can change, local members of state legislature would have to introduce and pass a bill in the NC General Assembly.