OXFORD — Granville County school board members have their eyes on reducing the length of the board’s six-year terms.
The current term is unusual because a four-year term of office is the “default” for school boards in state law and what most school districts in North Carolina have at this point, said Eva DuBuisson, the Granville board’s attorney.
About a year ago, a proposal was brought to the board to bring Granville’s term length in line with that of its counterparts elsewhere. DuBuisson said she thinks the concern was six year terms requires a level of commitment that may “dissuade” potential candidates from running. She added that the board also “has had a lot of resignations.”
But changing the length would take two things — action by the N.C. General Assembly and an agreement with the federal government.
The Granville school board has six-year terms thanks to a 1980s Voting Rights Act lawsuit against the board that alleged the countywide at-large method of electing board members that was in place up until then “denied black voters the equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice,” according to a 2006 report co-authored by, among others, current N.C. Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls.
The report, titled “Voting Rights in North Carolina 1982-2006,” said the dispute ended with a consent agreement between the board and the U.S. Department of Justice that endorsed giving the board seven members elected from districts to serve six-year terms.
“The parties agreed that the district system would give black voters the equal opportunity to elect preferred candidates,” the report said.
State legislators followed up in 1989 by passing a law codifying the arrangement.
The length of term was not an issue in the lawsuit, but there were six-year terms before, and they were incorporated into the order, DuBuisson said. Changing that would require going back and getting the court order revised.
DuBuisson said she had reached out to the Justice Department. “It took about a year, but I did actually get a response this week, or Friday, I think, that they would consent … if we asked the court to change it from six years to four years,” she said.
That’s “very helpful because if they didn’t consent then it would be a dispute [that] the court would have to hear,” DuBuisson said during the board’s Feb. 15 retreat. “My hope is that if we submit the request to the court and show them that the federal government has consented, which is the only other party in this lawsuit, that it should be granted and it shouldn’t be an enormous deal.”
The other thing that would need to happen is a local bill in the General Assembly to change the 1989 law. DuBuisson said that seems “doable.”
She said during the retreat that she hasn’t filed anything in court yet, but is “ready to do so” now that she’s heard from the Justice Department. DuBuisson said she would draft and file a motion, and from there whether it’s granted “rather quickly or not quickly, it’s hard to say.”
But “my hope is [that it] would not require a hearing or at least would not require extensive hearings, that it could hopefully be granted fairly quickly,” DuBuisson said.
As for the needed General Assembly action, the board would need to approach its local legislators and find one willing to manage the bill’s progress through the state House and Senate. DuBuisson said she has drafted some language to include in such a measure, but board members are probably “best positioned” to speak to legislators.
She added that “I think we can write a local bill that says, that is conditioned upon court approval,” so “I don’t think we need to wait for the court before you approach your legislatures about a local bill.”
Board Chairman David Richardson asked his colleagues if perhaps two would volunteer to help. Members Amanda LaBrecque and Gregory McKnight volunteered.
“We will ask McKnight and LaBrecque to work with the attorney,” decide on next steps and “then, when you’re ready for us to do something, if you want to come back, let us know ahead of time,” Richardson said. “We’ll put that on [the] agenda of a board meeting to be able to do that. So, attorney, if you’ll reach out to these two and y’all set up what you may need to start that work.”
The proposal doesn’t envision shortening the current terms of any of the incumbent board members.