BEAUFORT — After meeting in closed session Tuesday, the County Board of Education unanimously approved in open session a resolution that aligns voting districts for the school board and county commission races.

“In 2011, the districts for county commissioners were changed by the County Board of Commissioners to reflect population changes,” school board attorney Neil Whitford told the News-Times. The population changes stemmed from the 2010 Census.  

“The school board is elected at large, so they opted to not redistrict,” he explained. “This resulted in differences between the county commission and school board districts.”

For years, the districts differed, until November 2018, when the county’s GIS department, in response to a work order request related to printing maps for the County Board of Elections, changed the school board districts to align with those of the County Board of Commissioners.

At their Wednesday morning meeting, elections board members said they were unaware at the time of the staff-level changes, calling them “improper.”

The problem was recently detected, according to the elections board, during a state audit. Elections staff and the board estimate the issue affected roughly 7,500 county voters.

Board of Elections Chairperson Susie Cuthrell said Friday that after reviewing a copy of the November 2018 work order from staff and an accompanying voicemail, she believes the change was “just an error.”

“I don’t think there was any bad intention,” she said.

The News-Times has reviewed the work order and voicemail, provided by staff after a request. County Manager Tommy Burns provided a copy of Tuesday’s school board resolution but declined to comment on the matter.

Wednesday, elections board members questioned the changes and noted neither that panel, nor staff members have the authority to alter district lines in such a way.

“We have no authority in the elections board or office to make changes to districts,” member Dale Gillikin said. Instead, the ability to amend school district lines in this case lies with the board of education, members said.

“The maps were causing confusion and we needed to get it straightened out,” Mr. Whitford, the school board’s attorney, told the News-Times Wednesday. “Most people already assumed the districts were the same for a long time, so essentially what we did Tuesday was correct a technicality.”

In effect, the resolution makes the alteration, which aligns commission and school board districts, official.

Mr. Whitford said he plans to draft a bill he hopes will be presented to the N.C. General Assembly in January to formalize the matter at the state level.

“I’ll draft the bill and give it to the board chairman. He’ll get in contact with our legislators and ask that it be presented as early as possible, which should be in January,” Mr. Whitford said.

He said the reason he asked to meet with the school board in closed session to discuss the issues was because “there were some legal matters that had to be addressed.”

The action comes on the heels of the County Board of Elections and State Board of Elections adjusting the voter districts and GIS systems in November to align the two districts after receiving complaints about the discrepancies.

In an email Wednesday, Board of Elections Director Caitlin Sabadish said she had not been aware the school board was taking the action until she heard the resolution had passed.

“This does not change the fixes that we recently made, but it will secure them,” Ms. Sabadish said. “I think Mr. Whitford is taking all the right steps in recommending that the General Assembly ratify this action.”

She separately told the News-Times there were no further steps needed by the elections office in regards to the matter and, “We’re not required to make notice of jurisdictional changes.”

Filing for 2020 elections began Monday and closes Friday, Dec. 20.

County Board of Education seats up for grabs in 2020 are currently held by Travis Day, a Republican from Morehead City, District 4; Jake Godwin, a Democrat from Newport, District 2; and Melissa Ehlers, a Republican from Morehead City, District 3.

Ms. Ehlers announced Tuesday she will not seek reelection. Mr. Day filed Monday.

Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 253; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.

Contact Jackie Starkey at 252-726-7081, ext. 225; email jackie@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @jackieccnt.

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