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Election change proves easier said than done

Johnston school board: ‘We have to get this right’

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SMITHFIELD — On paper, it was a simple exercise: Draw voting districts that would guarantee each high school attendance area a seat on the Johnston County Board of Education.

But then voters began weighing in.

“I thought we had a good plan until we started hearing from people,” Johnston school board member Peggy Smith said during a June 9 meeting of the board’s District Elections Committee.

The good news, Smith said, is Johnstonians appear to want district elections. “But they want different district elections,” she said.

Smith and her fellow board members had envisioned voting districts that roughly followed Johnston’s high school attendance boundaries. Rolling North Johnston and Princeton into one district would yield seven school board seats, which is what the board has now.

The immediate goal was to give southern Johnston County a voice on the board. It has lacked one since Butler Hall lost his reelection bid in 2018.

Terri Sessoms lives in Smithfield but is the South Johnston community’s liaison on the board. “They would like to have a resident sitting at this table,” she said.

But Sessoms said she had talked also with Johnston’s black leaders, who found fault with the board’s idea to nominate candidates from districts but then have them run countywide.

“They are very much in favor of district voting,” Sessoms said of leaders of the Johnston County NAACP and other minority groups. “They understand the need for each community to have representation but are very concerned about the at-large voting for all of those seats because they believe it would minimize the voice of the minority voters.

“I believe that’s something we need to consider because diversity is an important part of our school system.”

School board members had also found faults of their own with the plan. Among other things, election districts drawn from high school boundaries could vary widely in numbers of voters. And because of that, smaller districts would have as much clout on the board as larger districts because each would have just one vote on school matters.

That didn’t sit right with Ronald Johnson, another member of the District Elections Committee. “You want one vote to equal one vote,” he said. “You want a vote in Clayton ... to be equivalent to a vote in Benson, equivalent to a vote in Smithfield, a vote in Kenly, etc. You don’t need one vote in Micro equaling five votes in Clayton.”

Smith agreed. “We need to make sure the numbers are balanced across the district,” she said.

Personally, Johnson said he had no qualms with how Johnston voters elect school board members now. “I want to be an at-large candidate,” he said. “I don’t want to be from one particular district. But I do see the flipside. If you’re from the southern end of the county, you’re lacking representation right now.”

Smith said she too had mixed feelings about electing board members solely from districts. “I’m accountable now to all areas of the county,” she said, fearing that district-only elections could pit community against community in the quest for resources. “We cannot leave a district behind.”

Still, the pros of district elections likely outweigh the cons, Smith said, pointing to the diversity that Dorothy Johnson, a black woman, brought to the board during her long tenure. “We need ... faces on this board that reflect our constituents,” she said. “We’ve had that, but we no longer do.”

The committee agreed to slow its approach to district elections, taking time, among other things, to explore what kind of districts to draw and how to draw them.

“We have to get this right for the citizens of our county but most importantly for the students and the staff,” said committee member Tracie Zukowski.