PARKESBURG, PA — When many think of gerrymandering, it is in connection with state and federal level elections. Additionally, it is often characterized as a form of partisan politics and a way for one political party to have an unfair advantage. Yet, gerrymandering is the manipulation of election boundaries for the advantage of any group, not just political parties. In the Octorara Area School District, some would allege that School Board officials intentionally make use of gerrymandering “cracking” to dilute the voting power of Borough of Parkesburg residents.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Parkesburg has 3,593 residents and is the largest municipality within the School District. However, Parkesburg’s voters are split between Octorara’s Region 1 and Region 3. “Until recently I assumed gerrymandering was a fact of life- I have lived Parkesburg all my adult life and knew nothing else,” states Mel Keen, a former Parkesburg Borough Councilperson. “I think Parkesburg was split to reduce Parkesburg voter power. Now we have little say since the majority of both regions is from townships.”
The claimed impact of “cracking” Parkesburg is for the “packing” of voters from less populated communities into election regions. Regardless, gerrymandering has significant impacts on the representation received by voters in any gerrymandered district or region. Ultimately, gerrymandering’s goal is to design election regions that increase the number of wasted votes among a certain segment and drastically alter that group’s actual share of the voting population. So, by diluting Parkesburg’s voting power, some would contend that the Octorara Area School District can ignore or dismiss the Borough’s needs.
Octorara’s History of Unfair Elections
Back in 1997, a legal petition was filed against the Octorara Area School District demanding a change to the District’s representation plan. At the time, Octorara had a nine-region system and each municipality received an equal number of School Board members, irrespective of the population. The petitioner accused that this system of electing School Board members violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and was unconstitutional. With the exception of Robert Hume, the former longtime School Board member from the Borough of Parkesburg, the Octorara Area School Board decided to defend the apparent imbalance and voter disenfranchisement.
According to Octorara Area School Board meeting minutes (obtained through a Right-to-Know request), “Mr. Hume expressed his concern regarding the school district representation. He believes the Board is defending something that is unconstitutional and that the District should have a three-region system.” However, Sadsbury Township resident Hank Oleyniczak, who eventually became a School Board appointee, stated that he preferred the nine-region system of representation.
Regardless, the petition sought “at-large” representation, which would have ensured one-person-one-vote. With an “at-large” system, individual regions would be eliminated. School Board members would then be elected by the popular vote of the entire School District. However, while the court found the District’s election regions were in violation, there was an eventual settlement using a three-region system, an option from Pennsylvania’s Public School Code. Under this plan, Octorara would have a representative School Board based on regions that are “as nearly equal as possible.” Those three regions have been in place since 1999 with no change or official review.
Octorara’s Failure to Realign Election Regions
On February 27, 2018, Mr. Alan J. Javis sent a letter to Dr. Thomas Newcome, Octorara’s Superintendent of Schools. Javis provided legal counsel to the District back in the 1990s and the letter was provided through the previously stated Right-to-Know request. “I also believe that the Court wanted the District to monitor changes to the reputation of its Election Districts according to Census figures, which I doubt the District has been monitoring,” writes Jarvis. “Additionally, I note that Judge Wood was concerned that Lancaster County maintains a voice on the Board, and I would think that Christiana Borough and Sadsbury Township in Lancaster County should be within one Region.” One should note that the original petition was on behalf of citizens of Sadsbury Township, Lancaster County.
The Public School Code, used by the Court in the original order, states:
- “[The] population of each region shall be as nearly equal as possible and shall be compatible with the boundaries of election districts.”
- “Such plan for the division of the school district shall be submitted for approval to the court of common pleas.”
- “In a region plan not combining at-large directors, the number of regions shall be three or nine.”
- “No later than September in the second year following the year in which Federal census data is officially gathered, a school director district reapportionment commission shall be appointed.”
- “The duties of the reapportionment commission shall be, from the official data of the United States Bureau of the Census, to define the lines that divide the existing school director districts to make any new school director districts as nearly equal in population as practicable, and as compact and contiguous as possible, and to best provide for racial balance on the board of school directors of said school district.”
- “In addition, the reapportionment commission shall make every effort to maintain neighborhood boundary lines of communities of like interest whenever practicable.”
The current election region system uses estimates based on the 1990 Federal census data. Also, since the legal settlement, the School Board has missed two deadlines for reapportionment based on both the 2000 and 2010 Censuses. This is despite the revision and approval of the associated School Board Policy in 2011. Furthermore, for almost two decades, the Octorara Area School Board of Directors has neither convened a reapportionment commission nor made any attempt to realign election regions based on more current and accurate population figures.
“I don’t believe there was any ill intention on the part of Board members,” states Dr. Newcome. “It was something that the District really did not know it should be doing and the 2011 policy vote was just a coincidence.” Dr. Newcome also believes there is no concerted effort to intentionally “crack” the Borough of Parkesburg nor the “like interest” communities of Christiana Borough and Sadsbury Township.
Nevertheless, despite the apparent failures, the Octorara Area School Board of Directors has no plans to review current election regions. Moreover, while the Public School Code does provide checks-and-balances when changes are actually made, in the form of court review and approval, there is virtually no oversight or enforcement to ensure a review and reapportionment actually takes place. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania simply provides no direct triggers or supervision. Ultimately, it may require another legal action on behalf of the communities impacted. In the meantime, voters in the Borough of Parkesburg are potentially being disenfranchised.