Editorials

School board should focus on education, not map lines

The Beaufort County school board will accomplish little with its exploration of "options" for redistricting -- little beyond protecting board incumbents at this late date.

By their own admission, board members didn't pay attention or weigh in as Beaufort County Council took on the complicated, legally challenging task of redrawing district lines as a result of the 2010 census.

They also acknowledge that council members took into account the requisite criteria for drawing district lines, that their work was done in the open with public notice and coverage, that the school board did not give redistricting "the time, attention or study, which a matter of this significance or importance justifies."

So which is worse -- County Council, after a months-long, detailed public process, redrawing district lines resulting in 10 of 11 school board members facing re-election, or the Board of Education redrawing lines late in the game to help ensure they stay in office?

County Council gave the new districts final approval Monday. The plan now goes to the U.S. Justice Department for review. Unless the Justice Department or board members can show some violation of the law or flaw in the plan as adopted, the matter should be closed.

In a statement to County Council on Monday, the board raises the question of whether one plan best serves both public bodies. In other words, should school board districts mirror County Council districts? We say yes.

Both bodies deal with issues of countywide interest. To say that school board districts should focus on "attendance clusters, populations of students with common concerns ... and align with school interests and centers of local revenue sources" weakens the board's strongest argument when they ask voters to borrow millions of dollars to build new schools: Education concerns us all, and we all have a stake in its outcome.

It also fails to recognize that new schools are built and attendance zones shifted with some regularity in this county. Those changes certainly don't come once a decade as redistricting does.

If this were a real concern, we would have heard about it long before this. We're hearing it now because 10 of 11 school board members face election next year under the County Council plan.

County Council and school board districts have mirrored each other since at least 1987. A state law passed that year called for six single-member districts and three at-large seats for the board, the same configuration County Council had. The law went on to state that if County Council went to nine single-member districts, so would the school board.

In 1992, after County Council changed to 11 single-member districts, special legislation was passed to bring the school board into line with that.

Questions abound. Can the board redraw lines without legislative approval? Legislation setting the district lines would suggest not. Is education-related local legislation subject to Home Rule and therefore unconstitutional? Is the board willing to undertake and pay for a legal challenge to find out?

In its statement Monday, the board said it planned in the months ahead "to carefully study the best possible system of school district governance, the appropriate forum in which government options should be debated and considered."

If the statement were being graded on ambiguity and fuzzy language, the board would earn an "A." Are they talking about redistricting or financial independence or what?

They promise to keep the public informed on their work (as if they aren't obligated to do so anyway.)

They should promise to focus on the job at hand -- educating our children in the most effective, efficient way possible. District lines and individual faces on the board don't change that.

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