NC House Bill 66: Changing How School Board is Elected - TribPapers

NC House Bill 66: Changing How School Board is Elected

The Buncombe County School Board members. Photo courtesy of BCSB.

Buncombe County – North Carolina House Bill 66 (S72), a bill that, in part, changes the way Buncombe County elects its school board members, received opposition from the entire Buncombe County School Board. At the same time, supporters see the change in how county residents vote for school board members as a positive move.

Controversy Surrounding Voting Method

Buncombe has been electing one school board member to represent each of the county’s six public school districts: Erwin, Enka, Owen, North Buncombe, Reynolds, and Roberson. The residents also elect one at-large member. Yet, all residents, in whatever district they live in, get to vote for all candidates. So it’s not just the district’s residents who elect their representative, but all of the county. The races are nonpartisan, which means no party identification is listed on the voting ballots.

The Buncombe County School Board is predominately Democrat except for Amy Churchill, who is listed as a Republican. However, she asked her supporters in the last election to vote for Democrat candidates for the school board over Republican candidates. Her action resulted in her removal from the Buncombe County GOP’s executive committee.

HB 66 (S72) changes the current election process by allowing only school district residents to vote for their representative. In addition, it also makes the races partisan. The Tribune asked several Republicans what they thought about HB 66 and why it was needed.

“School board members would be able to focus their time, energy, and efforts into being a voice for the school district in which they reside,” said Pratik H. Bhakta, who ran for NC House District 115 in 2022 against Lindsey Prather, losing by about 5,000 votes. “Candidates for school board would also be able to focus their campaigning efforts on their school district instead of a county-wide ‘nonpartisan’ race. Their focus should be to represent their school district’s voice on the school board.”

He went on to say, “This method more accurately represents the voice of the community. Would it be prudent for voters from other school districts to choose their own school board representative? When the at-large method was used, it diluted the votes of each of the school districts and introduced a level of partisanship that diluted the will of the people of that particular school district.”

Concerns and Call for Change

Sara Disher Ratcliff, who ran for the Buncombe County Board of Education to represent Reynolds District, said, “The resolution that the current school board passed does not necessarily reflect the views of the individuals that it represents. The excuse that we have been doing things the same way since 1975 and it has worked is simply an out-of-touch argument.”

Ratcliff contends, “The population of Buncombe County has increased by almost 70% in that timeframe. This influx in population has changed the demographics of each school district significantly – which in turn has increased the need for additional school locations, educators’ needs, and parental concerns specific to those districts. How can the board ignore these facts? Are they convinced that the needs that were present in 1975 are the same needs that our districts face today?”

She cites statistics about the current demographic makeup of the county’s schools. “For 2023 – 68% of county school district students are white, 19% of students are Hispanic, 7% are black, 5% are two or more races, and 1% are Asian. Allowing for district voting would and should increase the interest of concerned citizens to become more involved within the district they want to represent. Knowing that their neighbors would put them into office would lead to better accountability and access to the board.”

“I truly wish more parents, grandparents, and community members took an interest in the actual election process in this county. The fact that only 57.55% of eligible voters turned out during the midterm is unfortunate,” said Ratcliff. “It is not until something truly impacts a voter’s school or their student that they wake up and take notice. The board makes decisions with little to no resistance. Therefore, when a group does come out to question something, they really do not have to provide answers…why should they…it is not like they will be required to do anything differently.”

“If only individuals who live in a specific district vote for the representative for that district – would that not mean that individual would be more in tune to the needs of that district?” Ratcliff asks.

She then goes on to criticize the current board. “As for the Board, for a group of people who claim to care so much about marginalized communities, families, and students – they sure enjoy attempting to silence them. It is time for Buncombe County to recognize that the specific differences within each of the six school districts – and see them as beneficial. After campaigning all over the county, I can tell you that the needs that are present in the North Buncombe district are vastly different than those of T.C. Roberson or Enka. Yes, the necessities will be the same across the entire county – however, understanding and having proper representation for the niche communities is imperative for those areas to grow and thrive.”

She admits that HB 66 will not fix everything wrong with the school system. “As a lifelong Buncombe County resident and, more importantly, the mother of four students in three different Buncombe County schools, I see a definite need for district elections. Is it going to fix every issue that is currently present? No – it is not; however, it is a change that is needed to guarantee that all of the individual voices, concerns, and values of each of those distinct districts are heard.”

Doug Brown, the new Buncombe County GOP Chairman, is also in favor of HB 66, saying, “The positive change this bill has is that it now gives the residents of each school district the chance to elect their representative, not the rest of the county.”

He then gives an example of the current system. “If North Buncombe has a population of 25,000 voters and Owen has 10,000, then even if all the 10,000 that live in Owen voted for their representative, the voters in North Buncombe would still be the ones that chose who would win. County-wide voting is a bad policy and keeps many without representation and a voice. The new election process will now allow only the 10,000 Owen residents to pick their representatives. This is common sense.”

He then listed other pros of the bill as follows:
– Residents will have a stronger voice in choosing their representative.

– A more diverse selection of candidates and willingness to serve.

– Candidates can take the time to connect with their district when running for office instead of having to cover the entire county.

– Representatives will have more accountability to voters of their district.

– More fair election process.

– Residents will have a stronger voice.

Brown says, “The school board has two options: they can draw the new districts at a cost to the school system, or they can ask the state to draw them at no cost to the school system.”