Proposed maps, representing voting regions within the Central Bucks School District for the election of school board directors, were presented on Wednesday evening at Central Bucks West High School to the Voting Region Committee.
The creation of the Committee stemmed from a request made by the district to the court to allow for community input despite having already submitted a map to the court on Dec. 8, 2022.
Will the court entertain new maps at this juncture?
On August 16 Judge Cheryl Lynne Austin issued an order scheduling the next hearing on the matter for September 28 and specifically stating that only the original map submitted by the school district will be considered.
Four different presenters, Bill Schaller, CBSD Fair Votes, Mara Witsen, and Jana Rotunno (whose map was presented by Mara Witsen) offered five different map proposals to approximately 100 onlookers in audience.
The map presented by CBSD Fair Votes is the same map the group filed with the court in January.
Schaller, Witsen and Rotunno had a slight advantage in drawing their maps. “All of them had access to our plan, we didn’t have any access to their plan,” said Connor O’Hanlon who presented on behalf of CBSD Fair Votes.
Maps from Witsen and Schaller contained nine regions and were somewhat comparable to the regions map currently in use. Maps from CBSD Fair Votes and Rotunno contained three regions.
Rotunno’s three-region map, presented by Mara Witsen, did not include political demographics under the pretext, in her mind, that the omission would eliminate gerrymandering. Additionally, the map’s regions were largely centered around the locations of the district’s three high schools.
Bill Schaller, who was retained to draw a map for the district and has years of experience drawing maps for the Republican Reapportionment Department of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, presented a nine-region map that split municipalities and also did not take political demographics into account when drawing the regions.
Witsen presented two maps that were also drawn based on population and did not consider the voter rolls.
Sarah Beltz, Connor O’Hanlon and Shannon Sticker, presented CBSD Fair Votes’ three region map that incorporates voter demographics proportionately and gives Republicans a slight advantage.
Additionally, CBSD Fair Votes does not disenfranchise voters from casting a timely ballot, unseat currently elected school board directors, and provides for residents to vote every two, versus four years.
“Our map was designed particularly to represent the entire district,” O’Hanlon said. “Our map is fair. We didn’t gerrymander it to help get six Democrats in there. We made it fair so that there could be a five to four, there could be a four to five. You can get Independents in there. It makes Independent voices heard.”
Members of the audience were offered the opportunity to provide public comment following the presentation of each map.
Christina Maida said she had not planned to speak at the meeting but provided comments three times. “The only way to demonstrate whether or not a map is gerrymandered is to look at the voter data. It’s really that simple,” said Maida.
Maida also pointed out that just because a school board director is from a particular region doesn’t mean they don’t serve all stakeholders in the district. “These school board directors serve at large, despite being elected by a region, so obviously you would want regions that are representative of the entire district,” she said.
In her public comment, Jaime Cohen Walker claimed the map presented by CBSD Fair Votes was gerrymandered. When asked how, she cited partisan connections between a law firm and the Bucks County Democratic Committee, political contributions, and door knocking.
“There is no way a candidate can possibly door knock all the doors. Each region has about 40k doors. Imagine being a school board director and having to knock all of them… it’s impossible,” she said.
She also cited that the parent-school board director relationship is supposed to be “more intimate” because they’re dealing with your children.
Adam Gilbert Cole spoke in favor of CBSD Fair Votes map saying he had helped circulate their petition in New Britain Township and that the area is politically mixed. “They appreciated the fairness in the maps,” he said, referencing multiple conversations he had with registered voters from all parties.
A member of Fair Districts PA, Sharon Forte, spoke in favor of the CBSD Fair Votes map and said that Fair Districts PA represents non-gerrymandering. “I like the way the Fair Votes group spent time to study, follow the guidelines,” she said. “It’s compact, contiguous, has equal population and is non-partisan.”
The wranglings surrounding the maps date to November of 2021 when Tracy Suits, a former Central Bucks school board director, took note of an upcoming school board agenda item to approve a revision to the voting regions.
Electoral maps are traditionally updated every 10 years following the collection of census data, however Suits noted that the district’s new nine-region map would disenfranchise approximately 6,000 voters and asked the board to consider a different map. Instead, the district submitted their newly drawn map to the court for approval.
On January 27, after collecting 3,600 signatures in favor of a three-region map, CBSD Fair Votes, a group of local citizens who reside in a variety of municipalities across the district, filed an emergency petition with the court for consideration of their map.
Since then, starts and stalls have peppered the docket for a variety of reasons, including the full recusal of the Bucks County judiciary in early February.
The case was reassigned to Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas Senior Judge Cheryl Lynne Austin and a hearing was scheduled for April 14.
Twice the school district has requested a continuance to gain input from the community.
“It is a core principle of our republican form of government ‘that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around’,” wrote Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd in her 2018 majority opinion in League of Women Voters of Pa. v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Todd specifically points to the Fair and Equal Elections Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution:
“Any congressional districting plan shall consist of: congressional districts composed of compact and contiguous territory; as nearly equal in population as practicable; and which do not divide any county, city, incorporated town, borough, township, or ward, except where necessary to ensure equality of population.”
“They have now divided every single municipality that’s able to be divided,” said Flynn, referring to Schaller’s map. “The only municipalities they haven’t divided are Chalfont Borough and New Britain Borough. Those are single precinct municipalities, they can’t be divided. Every other municipality they’ve divided including, significantly, Doylestown Borough.”
Regardless of any recommendation made by the Central Bucks Voting Region Committee to the school board, the court will ultimately decide which map will be considered on behalf of the school district at the September 28 hearing.