Attempt to redistrict DeKalb school board unearths tensions

Working on a deadline imposed by the state House, the delegation was supposed to select a map Thursday. But its members could reach no agreement after a fractious meeting.

While the House delegation quarreled, the county's senators approved a map that consolidates the current nine school board posts into seven.

The remapping is occurring for two reasons: Internal political boundaries are redrawn every decade after the federal census, and a new state law mandated a reduction this year in the number of DeKalb school board seats from nine to a maximum of seven.

Should the House delegation fail to approve the Senate map or agree on a new one of its own, the issue could be sent to Superior Court, where a "special master" would draw the map, said Sen. Emanuel Jones, a Democrat from Ellenwood and chairman of the Senate delegation.

"We don't know what would happen in that process," Jones said.

Rep. Howard Mosby, a Democrat from Atlanta and chairman of DeKalb's House delegation, could not be reached for comment about the Senate map. But immediately after his own meeting Thursday, he said he would convene another meeting by Wednesday morning in search of a compromise. That's the deadline set by General Assembly leaders to reach some kind of compromise. The Legislature will need time to approve a final version and get it to the U.S. Justice Department. The federal agency must review and approve it in time for the fall election.

The House members' disagreement was spurred by a map a subcommittee forwarded earlier this week that would have reduced the number of school board seats to five..

The subcommittee's chairwoman, Rep. Simone Bell, described the process as "contemptuous."

"We heard people say the only reason you’re keeping the five members is because they’re African-American,” said Bell, who is black. (In reality, four of those five members are African-American.)

The map would have eliminated the seats of most of the white members of the school board, leaving one from North DeKalb. The remaining four black members would have been from the county's south side, causing a sharp geographic divide on the board.

Bell, a Democrat from Atlanta, said the map her subcommittee recommended was the only option it saw that addressed the state law to reduce the school board's size.

School board member Paul Womack of North DeKalb, whose seat would have been eliminated under the House map, said that if that map eventually achieves passage, "it will destroy the DeKalb County school system."

"You [would] have only one white person on the board," said Womack, who is white, "and this is all about protecting friends, family and who's going to get contracts."

Womack's seat would still be in danger under the Senate map. It collapses Womack's District 4 and District 9 into each other, and it merges Districts 6 and 8. That would force the four incumbents to run against each other.

A new map for the County Commission that made only minor changes in the existing district lines, gained approval with little conflict.

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