Originally created 09/27/03

Edgefield school board considers more plans



EDGEFIELD, S.C. - The maps may change, but the political battle remains the same.

Hung up by the need to give 6,220 new residents of Edgefield County proportional representation and the desire to protect the county school board's 4-3 minority edge, board members this week were given two new proposals that would redraw all seven districts.

Some board members are already expressing the same discontent that led them to reject several plans last year, raising the prospect of further delay on action that needs to be taken before the Legislature meets in January.

"That's just a little ridiculous," said District 2 board member Andy Livingston, looking at a plan advanced by the NAACP that would hook his jurisdiction around the northeast side of Edgefield County, through Johnston, then southwest past Trenton. "That's a tough chore. It becomes difficult in a campaign situation to meet and greet folks."

Under that plan, District 2 member and board Chairman Brad Covar's Edgefield-centered jurisdiction would expand and run southeast to touch the Savannah River and Merriwether, in the southern end of the county.

"We don't want to have Andy running from the mountains to the sea and my district, the same thing," Mr. Covar said.

The driving force behind the proposal is the 2002 Census, which found 6,220 new residents in Edgefield County, most of them white suburbanites in the Merriwether section.

After every census, lines get redrawn for congressional, county and legislative districts. In South Carolina, state law sets a soft deadline for redrawing legislative and county districts but exempts municipalities and school boards.

But population isn't the only consideration, said Bobby Bowers, South Carolina's top redistricting expert.

The U.S. Department of Justice scrutinizes redistricting in states with a history of voter discrimination, rejecting plans that reduce the number of potential minority representatives. That forces Mr. Bowers and other experts to balance equalizing the number of residents in each district with maintaining the minority candidates' chances for election.

In the case of Edgefield County's school board, federal watchdogs don't want to see plans that reduce the number of black voters in the jurisdictions of District 3 member George Smith, District 5 member Louise Talbert and District 1 member Mary Alice Jackson. Under the plan favored by Mr. Covar, Mr. Smith's district would go from a black voting-age population of 61.41 percent to 50.78 percent.

The influx of new residents in Merriwether challenges the historic political power axis that ran through Johnston, Edgefield and Trenton, Mr. Covar said.

"The people in Merriwether are definitely active politically and are fighting for their fair share politically," said Mr. Covar, noting the community's rejected bid for a second high school and its successful push for a charter high school.

The increasing activism of Merriwether residents, who complain that their children face a 40-mile round-trip bus ride to the county's only high school, Strom Thurmond, is not lost on school board incumbents such as District 6 member Sallie Cooks, the vice chairwoman.

"There are two choices that have to be made," said Ms. Cooks, who is black. "We'd either have to put two incumbents in the same district and create a whole, brand-new district down in Merriwether, or you have to reach down there with the districts you've got because that's where the population is. ... We have to make sure the growth of Merriwether is included in our decision - it's only fair."

Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395 or jim.nesbitt@augustachronicle.com.