Two themes define the proposals that state Sen. Chuck Edwards, a Republican who represents eastern Buncombe County, has made regarding local elections. They aim to divide elected bodies, such as Asheville City Council, into districts where each seat is elected by a separate pool of voters. And they are stridently opposed by local leaders.
That pattern held true Oct. 5 as the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted 6-1 for a resolution opposing Edwards’ latest legislative move, an attempt to change elections for Buncombe’s Board of Education. All voters in the area served by Buncombe County Schools now vote for all seven school board members, six of whom must live in a specified district and one at-large representative who can live in any district. Edwards’ language would keep the at-large seat but limit voting for district representatives to residents of their respective districts.
Commissioner Robert Pressley, the board’s only Republican, was its only member to support the change. He argued that each school district has specific concerns and that their representatives would be best chosen by voters of that district.
“Reynolds is different from Enka; Enka and Erwin are different,” Pressley said. Under the existing system, he continued, “Another district can override who [voters of one district] really want there.”
But the board’s six Democrats, including Amanda Edwards, were united in their opposition. She noted that the Buncombe school board had not asked for any change; the language had originally been inserted into HB 400, a bill requested by Asheville City Council to create an elected Asheville City Board of Education that did not reference the county system. (On Oct. 6, the Buncombe provisions were removed from HB 400 and set into a separate bill as HB 118.)
Among Western North Carolina counties, Edwards added, only Madison County holds districted school board elections. “It really starts to lead us down a slippery slope of making our school board elections partisan,” she claimed. “When you look across the state at what has happened when school boards become partisan, it politicizes our children … which erodes the purpose of public education.”
Chuck Edwards’ proposal would maintain Buncombe’s school board elections as nonpartisan. However, a review of voting patterns conducted by former Asheville City Council candidate and political observer Rich Lee suggests that the shift would favor Republicans in at least two districts.
Per Lee’s analysis of N.C. State Board of Elections data, just over half of voters in both the Enka and North Buncombe school districts voted for Republican U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn in 2020, compared with 38% of Buncombe voters overall. (Amy Churchill, who represents the Roberson district in the county’s south, is currently the school board’s only registered Republican.)
And Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara suggested it was important for the board to send the senator a message regarding his legislative priorities. She noted that legislation to reform distribution of Buncombe’s occupancy tax, which enjoys broad community backing and Edwards’ public support, has failed to progress in the General Assembly.
“On the other hand, we see a bill that’s actually moving that seems to have no origins in local political support or community support,” Beach-Ferrara said about the school board proposal. “It’s incumbent on us as the county commission … to push for a responsiveness at the state level to things that will actually serve the interests of members of our community.”
Following the commissioners’ vote, the county Board of Education unanimously approved its own resolution supporting the current election system Oct. 7.
Updated at 1:37 p.m. Oct. 8 to include new developments at the state level and the result of the Buncombe County Board of Education vote.