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School Board reverses commission, rejects redistricting map

BROOKSVILLE — For the past eight years, the political districts for the Hernando School Board and County Commission have aligned.

That might change soon.

Citing concerns about a potential legal quagmire, the School Board on Tuesday night unanimously rejected a redistricting map approved by the commission earlier in the day. Board members worried that the commission's decision to approve a map that accommodates one County Commission candidate could draw a legal challenge.

"Why would we want to get involved in something where there could be legal problems?" board member James Yant said.

The board then directed the school district staff to investigate the additional expense of different boundaries and scheduled a special meeting for 10 a.m. next Tuesday to consider its options.

About two hours earlier, during the public comment portion of the School Board meeting, NAACP Hernando branch president Paul Douglas said the commission's "fateful decision" to adopt the revised the map would be relayed to his organization's state and national officers.

"This is a gerrymandered plan that needs to be opposed," said Douglas, who is running for the District 5 County Commission seat.

The original map, approved in a November workshop by the County Commission and School Board, used 2010 census data to make some minor adjustments that evened out the population in the five districts.

But the map drew fire from Republican Jason Sager, who had announced his plan to run for the District 3 commission seat the day before the workshop. Sager told commissioners that he should have been considered, as other prequalified candidates had been. The original map would have moved Sager's residence from District 3 to District 5. The commission agreed to alter the map to put Sager's home back into District 3.

The NAACP had created its own map. That plan, Douglas has argued, is better because it is not based on where candidates live.

J. Lisle Bozeman, the school district's manager of planning and growth management, relayed to the School Board what County Attorney Garth Coller told the commission at its meeting Tuesday: Both plans meet the criteria required by statute — districts that are compact, contiguous and roughly equal in population — and would be, in Coller's opinion, legally defensible.

School Board members were not convinced.

"It's not just the result that matters," said member Matt Foreman, an attorney. "It's how you get to the result."

The school district must approve a map by the end of the year. Given that time frame, it's unlikely the board will opt to draw its own map. That leaves as options the original map it approved in November or the NAACP map.

In fact, the board did vote Tuesday to approve the NAACP plan. Member John Sweeney made the motion, and members James Yant and Dianne Bonfield also voted yes. After more discussion, however, Sweeney had second thoughts and said the board should find out the financial impact that two different maps might have on taxpayers, either in cost to the district or to the supervisor of elections. The board then reversed the vote on the NAACP plan and agreed to schedule the special meeting.

Separate maps for County Commission and School Board districts would not add an exorbitant amount of expense to the election process, but there would be some impact, said Elizabeth Townsend, director of operations for Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams.

The office would have to maintain separate precinct and voting maps, and the amount of staff time required to enter the new districts into software to assign voters to the proper districts would increase, Townsend said.

Asked what Williams would tell the school district if asked about having different districts, Townsend replied: "We try to make things as convenient as possible for the voter, and it is less confusing when the districts are the same."

That is the same argument Williams offered a decade ago, the last time the county and school district tackled the redistricting process, which takes into account new U.S. census data. With different districts, voters may have commissioners identified by one number and a School Board member by another.

County Commissioner Dave Russell said Wednesday that he stood by the commission's decision. He cited Coller's opinion and called the process equitable.

Commissioner John Druzbick, who repeatedly told commissioners he just wanted to make sure that the district lines for the county and school district stayed the same, was chairman of the School Board in 2003 when the board and the County Commission agreed to the uniform districts. Druzbick said he hoped the School Board would reconsider after it gathered more information and feel more comfortable that the map approved by the commission is just as defensible as the NAACP map.

That could be a tall order for Yant, who said Tuesday night that he would not support the county's map.

"My mind is not going to change to what they voted on today," Yant said. "There are things going on there that I don't feel comfortable with."

Staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@tampabay.com.

School Board reverses commission, rejects redistricting map 12/14/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 14, 2011 6:26pm]
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