Alignment Needed In County Redistricting

Of the 64 counties in Tennessee that have a single countywide school system, Knox County is one of only four in which school board districts are not aligned with County Commission districts.

One of the other outliers is Davidson County, whose unwieldy 40-member Metro government council precludes congruity with its nine school board districts. Of the other two, one (Madison County surrounding Jackson) is reportedly striving to achieve alignment in conjunction with the redistricting process that every county in the state is going through right now to equalize district populations based on the 2010 census.

This year's decennial redistricting represents the first time that alignment of school board and County Commission districts is possible in Knox County. That's because prior to 2010, the county's nine equally sized school board districts wouldn't fit with a 19-member County Commission in nine districts, one of which had three commissioners and was half again larger than the other eight with two commissioners each. Now, with its reduction in size to 11 members—one from each of nine districts plus two at-large seats—the boundaries of these nine Commission districts and the nine school board districts can be brought into conformity.

The benefits of doing so were well stated by the president of the Knox County League of Women Voters, Jamey Dobbs, at a meeting of a Joint Redistricting Committee earlier this month. "Our view," Dobbs told the committee, "is that completely aligned districts will better serve the public by making voting simpler and more comprehensible. It would reduce the confusion voters face in comprehending multiple districts and boundaries and allow them to focus on the candidates and the issues, opposed to their boundaries."

As matters stand, about 75 percent of the county's 432,236 residents live in the same numbered Commission and school board districts. But getting the other 25 percent co-located poses challenges—one of which is that it almost inevitably means redrawing boundaries in ways that exclude one or more elected representatives from residence in the districts that they serve.

The challenges are compounded by the fact that redistricting requires moving lots of people from one district to another to reflect population shifts that occurred between 2000 and 2010. Under the U.S. Supreme Court's "one man, one vote" standard, the maximum deviation between the largest and the smallest district can't exceed 10 percent. But the county's 50,000 growth over the past decade has been concentrated in its two western-most districts (the 5th and 6th) and has lifted their population nearly 30 percent higher than the center city 1st and 2nd Districts as well as South Knox's 9th District, which have scarcely grown at all.

The Metropolitan Planning Commission's GIS manager, Tim Kuhn, has presented four alternate plans to the Joint Redistricting Committee comprised of four county commissioners and four school board members. Two of them use existing Commission districts as their point of departure while the other two start from existing school board districts. All of them achieve alignment but in quite different ways.

As might be expected, the school board members tend to favor plans based on configurations with which they are most familiar, while the commissioners lean toward plans that are based on their home turf. Where the collision between the two gets most intense is over territory in which both a sitting commissioner and school board member reside, but which fall into different Commission and board districts.

The epicenter of these turf wars is in Karns, where both Commissioner Brad Anders and school board member Cindy Buttry reside, but which is in the 6th Commission District and the school board's 3rd District.

If districts are aligned, whichever one of them loses residency isn't exactly thrown under the bus. They could not only serve out the balance of their present terms but would also be allowed to run for one additional term following a redistricting per a waiver of district residency requirements. However, Buttry has said she will only seek re-election next year in a district in which she lives, which would have to be the 3rd District because the 6th District school board seat is occupied until 2014 by Thomas Deakins. Anders, by contrast, is serving a six-year term that runs until 2016, after which it's unclear whether he would be term limited.

Time is of the essence in completing the redistricting process because prospective candidates for the four school board seats that will be on the ballot in next March's primary need to know the district boundaries prior to a Dec. 8 filing deadline. (No Commission seat will be contested until 2014.)

A pivotal meeting of the Joint Redistricting Committee is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Sept. 27. But it's anything but clear what, if any, recommendations the committee will make. In any event, the school board appears resolved to adopt a redistricting plan at its next meeting on Oct. 5. However, County Commission is the final arbiter of both Commission and school board districting. So its meeting on Oct. 24 will likely determine whether districts get aligned or go their separate ways.

If good old boy and girl politics prevail, incumbents will get protection under separate plans. But the school board's outgoing chair, Indya Kincannon, asserts that "I think alignment is in the best interest of 432,000 residents, and we should put the public interest ahead of the interest of a few elected officials." Similarly, the county commissioner who chairs the joint committee, Larry Smith, observes that, "The sense of the community is that we need to align."

Adoption of any of MPC's aligned plans beats reversion to separate ones.