NP redistricting could take until next year

Monday, May 7, 2012

BAINBRIDGE -- After a week of research, attorney Gene Hostetter returned to the North Putnam school board with more redistricting questions than answers last Wednesday.

"We couldn't find any logical way to divide it," Hostetter said. "The only way to know for sure is to have a map that has every house with the number of people in it. Otherwise you're just shooting in the dark."

The seven-member school board currently has six from single-member electoral districts and one at-large member who can be chosen from any district.

Only the voters living within an electoral district can vote for a board member from their district. These district lines, dividing Russell, Franklin, Jackson, Clinton, Monroe and Floyd, have not been redrawn in several decades.

The state law requires that when a school board chooses its members through this process "the districts shall be reapportioned and their boundaries changed, if necessary, by resolution of the governing body before the election next following the effective date of the subsequent decennial census."

The census went into effect in 2011 and the law requires the districts be redrawn prior to the elections this fall.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the total population in the North Putnam district is 10,222.

The largest electoral district, Floyd, has a population of 4,011. The smallest, Russell, has 823.

The purpose of the redistricting law, which had been forgotten about by many of the local and state districts, is to make each vote have an equal value. As it stands, a voter in Russell seemingly has five times as much power to elect a district board member as a voter in Floyd.

Kelsey Kauffman, a university studies professor at DePauw who had students research redistricting in all levels of Indiana governmental bodies last year, says this differential is extremely rare.

"The local district that is most maldistricted -- in the entire state of Indiana -- is North Putnam," Kauffman said. "If they go to (redrawn) single-member districts, you know that two and maybe three members will be from Floyd."

There are more options.

Instead of having single-member electoral districts, Cloverdale has residential school board districts. South Putnam agreed to a similar process in January.

With residential districts, candidates living in one of the districts will represent that district, but he or she is elected by an at-large vote by everyone in the corporation.

If North Putnam were to select this option, it could continue having a representative from each of the six districts, but instead of each candidate being selected only by the voters in that district, the entire corporation would vote on each district.

The board could use this option, have one more member elected from an at-large pool from the entire corporation and not be forced to redraw district lines.

Lisa Tanselle, staff attorney for the Indiana School Boards Association, said the vast majority of school districts in Indiana use this method.

"If you're divided by residents' districts then you never have to worry about equality within your districts," she said.

As board member Charlie Boller put it, "There is one (option) that fixes it forever and there is one that has to be done every 10 years."

Another option would be opening the entire board up to an at-large election. Any of the seven members could come from anywhere in the district and be voted on by everyone.

North Putnam is hoping to avoid this.

"The easy thing to do is just to say everything is at large," board member Oliver Haste said. Using that process, "if (Floyd) wants to control the school board, they certainly could with their votes.

The final option would be to have board seats filled by appointment. Instead of having the seats voted on publicly, other elected officials would select school board members.

The least-common method, this is how Greencastle board seats are filled.

On Wednesday the board primarily talked about the difficulties and benefits of redrawing district lines with the hope of keeping the same system they have and hoping to preserve the current districts.

Rules for redrawing state that districts must be compact (a circle is best), contiguous and maintain equality of population.

Unequal population is the reason for this discussion on redistricting.

Districts are generally considered balanced if there is a differential of no more than 10 percent from largest to smallest. In North Putnam, that would mean the districts should all be within 170 people.

William Bock, an attorney with extensive experience in redistricting cases, said even coming within 10 percent may not be enough.

"That's a rule of thumb that is dangerous to follow," Bock said. "When it comes to congressional redistricting, the courts will look at it down to the last individual."

In one county case, courts ruled against a district that fell within 3.8 percent. Bock said that in local, non-partisan districting, courts tend to be more lenient.

The goal, he said, is to make the districts as close as possible.

"There needs to be a good-faith effort to make everybody's voice count equally," Bock said. "It's not that difficult with modern software to draw districts where you have equal population numbers."

At the meeting, Hostetter said North Putnam underwent a similar process when redrawing bus routes.

The goal then was to have each school bus serve an equal number of students. Now the goal is to have each board member serve an equal number of voters.

Board members suggested using 911 and post office information, though none was immediately available.

This will certainly be lengthy, time-consuming and likely an expensive process. Unfortunately, time is a factor.

In an email dated Oct.31, 2011 obtained by the Banner Graphic, ISBA's Tanselle wrote:

"Several superintendents have received a letter from a senator advising that 'all school districts in Indiana by law are obligated to have their redistricting plans completed by December 31, 2011.'"

Tanselle wrote that her note was being sent to all superintendents, and clarified not every school corporation was affected, just those using single-member electoral districts.

In these cases, which includes North Putnam, "the school board has a duty to review the populations of each of these electoral districts every 10 years," Tanselle said.

North Putnam's superintendent at the time, Mary Sugg Lovejoy, resigned in December and was relieved of her duties Friday, April 27.

On March 31 Kauffman sent an email to Debbie Sillery, president of the North Putnam school board.

In the email she included a response from Bock regarding a timeframe to redistrict.

Bock wrote that in order to be fair to voters and candidates, the process should be completed before the August deadline for candidate declaration.

There is normally a 120-day process, after a school board approves the new districts, before the approval takes effect. This is to allow voters a chance to review the plan and discuss it with the board.

Brad King, co-director of the Indiana Election Division, said for school boards this is not an obligation.

"There is no requirement to advertise for (redistricting) for school boards," King said.

Dan Noel, who will take over as North Putnam's superintendent next year, said he believes going through a change in administrators may have delayed some of the redistricting process.

He noted that his current school, Switzerland County High School, is at a similar stage. That school also recently changed superintendents.

In a special session on April 24, Hostetter reported results from his preliminary redistricting inquiry and said he would continue exploring the topic. The board scheduled another special session for a week later, hoping to resolve the redistricting issue.

On Wednesday the board determined that a redistricting process would likely not be completed in time to take effect before the primary election this year.

Board members speculated about the potential time and cost to research the project, including hiring a consultant, but no estimates were available.

North Putnam has placed a priority on getting the redistricting done properly and accurately, which will take longer than rushing to an inaccurate decision.

"If we can get as much information as we can at minimal cost, we're certainly going to do that," Noel said.

The board resolved to appoint a three-member committee, Haste, John Hays and Jacquelyn Simpson, to work on redistricting.

With this added resource, Sillery said, "we'll hopefully get a good start on it next year."

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