Redistricting plans confound school board

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Census will require redrawing election districts in Carroll County

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter


HILLSVILLE — Examples of redrawing Carroll's voting districts, particularly Fancy Gap, brought an accusation of gerrymandering from a school board member last Tuesday.
Justin Barnard, the county's Geographic Information System (GIS) coordinator, made the same presentation on redrawing election districts to the Carroll Board of Supervisors two weeks before.
These changes — after the release of population numbers from the 2010 Census — are required by law, he explained to both groups.
Barnard's earlier presentation drew little response from the county supervisors, but the school board members found much more to question at their Feb. 8 meeting.
Barnard advised the school board on his strategy to bring the five voting districts to within 10 percent of each other in population, after the new census figures came out.
He shared the idea that local officials were supposed to draw districts based on understandable boundaries, such as major roads or geographical features, like a river.
Previous redistricting efforts contained some oddities in drawing the lines, he told the school board members.
While the census numbers had been released the Thursday prior to the school board meeting, Barnard illustrated his points with maps using numbers from the 2000 Census.
"We do have them [the latest census numbers] right now," he said. "I am in the process of downloading those and analyzing them and working with them — we've not really come up with anything final yet."
Population numbers didn't change much over 10 years, with Carroll adding about 800 people.
"I can't stress enough — keep in mind—  this is not the way its going to be," Barnard said, referring to the map using the 2000 numbers. "This is just my strategy, this is the way I want to try to make it look, but with these new numbers, it's going to look a little different."
Barnard explained how he would adjust the lines to make the numbers work out, running through a number of permutations, based at first on primary roads such as Interstate 77, U.S. 58 and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
He had to adjust further from there, because the population deviations between districts were still too large.
That's been an issue in past redistricting efforts — the lack of primary roads as boundaries, leading to confusion for people about what district they're in.
Barnard pointed to an area north of Galax that didn't make a lot of sense, because it had been designated Pipers Gap instead of Sulphur Springs, like the surrounding areas.
"What is commonly known as the Fancy Gap area is not in the Fancy Gap District," another problem with the current districts, he said.
Other factors will need to be considered in the redistricting besides raw population, Barnard said. Those include where elected officials live and where polling stations and precincts are.
Local officials should also avoid letting a local precinct be split by a federal house or senate district boundary drawn by state officials.
After about 10 minutes or so of explaining his thinking and his methods of drawing the new maps, Barnard opened it up to questions to the school board.
"So the historical boundaries has no importance?" asked Berrier.
"Not as much," Barnard answered.
To his knowledge, the Fancy Gap District has been drawn for much the same way for 42 years, Berrier said. And the Fancy Gap community has never been in the Fancy Gap District.
Berrier, the Fancy Gap District representative on the school board, felt the historic boundaries are important to people.
He wondered if Barnard had taken into account what the people wanted.
"These issues that have came up have been brought to me by the people," Barnard answered. "It wasn't that I came up with them on my own."
"You reconfigured the whole Fancy Gap District," Berrier said.
"Pipers Gap, Laurel Fork and Fancy Gap — there's a big change right there," Barnard acknowledged. "For the most part, Sulphur Springs and Pine Creek are going to look about the same, but you're going to see a big change in Fancy Gap."
Are the people north of the parkway going to vote at Fancy Gap school? Berrier asked.
"Fancy Gap school's always been a Pipers Gap precinct," said School Board Member Robert Utz of the Laurel Fork District.
There could be confusion for voters with changes at first, but Barnard hoped that the county could notify people of the changes that affect them.
Are the present districts out of alignment? Berrier asked.
Not with the 2000 Census numbers, Barnard said.
But the population of the whole county only changed by 800 people, Berrier said. "This is more or less gerrymandering.”
"No, not at all," Barnard said.
The term “gerrymandering” refers to dividing up a territory to give one political party or group an electoral majority in a large number of districts, while concentrating the voting strength of the opposition in as few districts as possible.
"Like he mentioned about gerrymandering, when I first saw [the redistricting ideas], all five supervisors would be intact," Utz said. "All school board would be two in one district and three in another district."
"I can assure you that not one board of supervisors or one school board member has talked to me about any of this," Barnard said. "This has been based primarily on [the fact that] I've lived in Carroll County for a number of years and... when I think of Fancy Gap I think of Fancy Gap School…"
The school's never been in Fancy Gap District, Berrier said.
"But does that not lead to some confusion?" Barnard said.
"It may do, but it's based on historical fact — whether you're confused or not," Berrier said.