Minority districts mulled

Published 1:17 am Saturday, September 24, 2011

Come next year, Beaufort County may or may not have three majority-minority school board districts.
In fact, based on figures released in the 2010 census, the county already may not have three majority-minority school board districts, though the Beaufort County Board of Education does have three black members — Eltha Booth of Washington, E.C. Peed of Aurora and Barbara Boyd-Williams of Belhaven.
The minority-represented school-board districts in question are Districts 1, 2 and 3.
The possibility of having white majorities in two of these three members’ districts — Peed’s and Williams’ — has been among the main topics of discussion at two recent school board meetings.
Booth’s district would retain a majority-black population.
But basically, the problem comes down to population shifts in the other two districts, explained Kellie Harris Hopkins, the county’s elections director.
And it’s uncertain if the board could cobble together territories that would stretch to include minority communities without producing bug-splatter-shaped districts that could confuse voters.
In the past couple of weeks, the board has heard from two authorities on redistricting — Hopkins and Deborah Stagner, an attorney with the Tharrington, Smith law firm in Raleigh.
Both of these authorities have told the board that members of the county’s black population have changed residences or not grown rapidly in numbers in certain communities over the past 10 years. This accounts for changes in the demographics of some school board districts, and this is an issue the board couldn’t avoid if it wanted to.
Following the U.S. census, the school board has to conduct redistricting, as does the N.C. General Assembly, Hopkins pointed out.
Redistricting often results in the shifting of local, state and congressional voting districts. The lines are moved around in response to growing or waning populations reflected in census tracts.
The school board last cycled through redistricting in 2002, and the district maps resulting from that process have been used in the board’s elections since that time, Hopkins said.
The rub here is that Beaufort County, along with 39 other North Carolina counties, is covered by Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, she related.
This means that any change in elections here has to be “precleared” by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Board member Robert Belcher asked whether the Justice Department will require the county to have three minority districts.
“That’s the question of the hour,” Hopkins replied, adding Justice Department decisions on redistricting blueprints are frequently affected by case law arising from lawsuits.
A preclearance problem could arise if board members “don’t show that you tried to do the best you could” in accounting for minority voters while crafting a fresh plan, she warned.
So, how do the current three minority members feel about all of this?
“I don’t know enough yet,” Williams said. “I just can’t make any comment.”
Prior to Thursday’s school board session, Booth had called Hopkins with questions about redistricting.
“I feel that I know … people well enough in my district that, regardless of whether it’s majority-minority or not, that I have built confidence enough that they will vote for me,” she said. “I feel that it doesn’t matter, that the people will vote their conviction regardless of whether it’s a majority-minority district or not.”
Peed wants to retain three majority-minority districts.
“I think we should keep the majority-minority (districts),” she said. “I think it will be possible. We’ve kept them the last 20 years or so. I think we’ll be able to keep it.”
Once the school board approves new districts, the Justice Department will look over the plans to determine if they disenfranchise minority voters.
The Justice Department’s review generally takes 60 days, according to Hopkins.
First, though, the school board has to approve a new map.
The board will schedule a public hearing on two alternative maps already on the table. The hearing will be announced at a later date.
If the school board clears all the hurdles before it, the new maps will be in place in time for 2012 election.
“You have a tough decision to make,” Hopkins told the board.