Barring judicial intervention, Fayette BoE election to remain at large

It looks like Fayette County residents will retain the right to vote for all five seats on the county board of education, at least for the upcoming primary elections this summer.

An evidentiary hearing on the matter has now been postponed until Wednesday, May 30, some five days after the qualifying period ends for all Democrat and Republican candidates for the three board of education seats that will be up for grabs this summer and fall in the primary and general election.

Furthermore, a pending federal lawsuit is on track to be resolved no earlier than Aug. 13, 2012, which is several weeks after the July 31 primary election.

District voting would have limited each Fayette voter to vote for only one seat on the five-member board of education: the one whose geographical district corresponds with the voter’s place of residence.

The NAACP wants district voting to alleviate concerns that black residents of Fayette County are disenfranchised under the current at-large voting system. The argument is that the BoE could carve out a special district in which minority voters would have a better chance at getting elected compared to having to run for office countywide.

The county’s legal challenge, however, is that the BoE does not have the power to change its districts. That power rests with the Georgia legislature, the county said in its recent legal challenge.

Furthermore, the county argues that the legislature, not the BoE, has the sole power to change the shape of the districts associated with each of the five school board seats.

At-large voting appeared to be a goner Jan. 9 when the board of education, with just hours of advance notice to the public, entered into a consent agreement with the local and national branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to:

• End at-large voting in favor of district voting;

• Change its five-district map to create a district designed to make it easier for a minority candidate to be elected with a high concentration of African-American voters; and

• To call for a special election this November for the District 5 seat currently held by Leonard Presberg, who was appointed last November to fill the remaining term left by deceased board member Sam Tolbert.

Earlier this month that agreement was overturned after a challenge from the Fayette County Commission, which also was listed as a defendant in the suit and had not agreed to the settlement.

That set the stage for an evidentiary hearing, which now has been pushed back to Wednesday, May 30, the week after the May 23-25 qualifying period during which all local Democratic and Republican candidates must file their intent to seek office.

It seems the only possibility that district voting would be enacted this year is if U.S. District Court Judge Timothy C. Batten Sr. enters an order prior to the beginning of qualifying that would adopt the BoE-NAACP district map, and that same map is subsequently approved by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Earlier this month, Batten voided the BoE-NAACP agreement because the county commission had not agreed to the settlement even though it is a party to the lawsuit, which also includes 10 black Fayette County residents as plaintiffs.

The seats up for election this year are the District 1 seat held by Janet Smola, the District 2 seat held by Terri Smith and the District 3 seat held by Marion Key.

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