Richardson ISD will change the way it holds school board elections following the settlement of a lawsuit that accused the district of discriminatory practices.
After a year of negotiations with plaintiff and former trustee David Tyson Jr., the district agreed that five of its school board members will be elected to represent single districts, while two will oversee the district as a whole.
The settlement announcement came Jan. 17 after a closed-door meeting with the board and its attorneys.
Board President Justin Bono described the settlement as "a win for equity in education."
“This process was exhaustive, and our board put forth a collaborative and thoughtful effort to resolve the issues," Bono said in the release. "... Our board members want more diversity at the decision table. We are all optimistic that can be achieved with a new electoral plan. Hopefully, this system will result in successful elections for minority candidates.”
RISD trustees have historically been elected at-large, meaning all residents can cast votes for each member. Tyson—the first and only person of color to serve on the RISD board—claimed this practice creates a system that not only favors white candidates but also discourages minority candidates from seeking election.
The move to single-member districts means RISD will seek approval from the federal court judge who oversaw the lawsuit to postpone its May school board election to November. Incumbent seats held by Karen Clardy, Place 3; Katie Patterson, Place 4; and Eron Linn, Place 5, are set to appear on the ballot. If the move does not happen in time for a November election, Bono said the change will occur in May 2020.
An opportunity to comment on the district's updated electoral process is scheduled for Jan. 29. The school board will consider the boundaries for voting districts at its Feb. 4 meeting. Each single-member district will have about 40,000 residents, according to the news release.
The settlement also addressed another lawsuit filed by Tyson that claimed the board violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by deliberating matters behind-the-scenes rather than in public. As a result, trustees have agreed to participate in training that reiterates the rules surrounding board deliberations.
“We also commend the board members for taking steps to provide greater transparency in connection with their decision making," Tyson's attorney William A. Brewer III said in a press release.
DRAWING THE DISTRICTS
The process to rollout the changes will happen as trustee seats come up for election and will therefore be implemented in 2021, Bono said. Proposed maps for the new single-member districts are in draft form and expected to be released within the next week, according to a RISD news release.
The board is responsible for deciding where new districts are drawn, Bono said, but decisions about which districts will move to single-member and which will remain at-large will not be determined until an order for election is called, which for a November election would be in August.
“Those maps are coming soon, and we are mindful of the community’s concerns regarding traditional neighborhood alliances and alignment," Bono said in the release.
In a Jan. 17 press release Tyson said he is hopeful that the new system will better serve “voters of color, communities, schools and all RISD students.”
“The newly drawn districts will hopefully result in a board that is a closer reflection of the diverse and inclusive communities and families that the RISD serves,” he said in the release.
Two of the five new single-member districts will be made up of a majority of eligible minority voters, both Hispanic and African American, the press release said.
AN HISTORIC SHIFT
At the heart of the voting rights lawsuit is RISD’s student demographics, which have shifted to majority nonwhite while the makeup of the school board has remained the same, Tyson’s lawsuit claimed.
In lawsuit filings, RISD denied allegations that its electoral system neglected the needs of minority students or favored schools on the basis of race.
Several school districts in Dallas-Fort Worth and across the nation have switched to single-member districts after reckoning with the “inherent representational flaws” that come with at-large election systems, according to the lawsuit.
“There is no legitimate reason to continue along this path,” the lawsuit stated. “The time is long overdue for RISD to adopt a system that ensures that the African American, Latino, Asian, and other communities have meaningful opportunity for full and fair participation in the election process.”
At the start of RISD’s federal desegregation order—in place from 1970 to 2013—95 percent of students were white. Today, more than 70 percent of the district's nearly 40,000 students are nonwhite, according to the lawsuit.
Additionally, enrollment data from school year 2018-19 shows 55.5 percent of the district’s students are economically disadvantaged.
But even as RISD’s student body has diversified, remnants of segregation remain, a claim that can be backed by the success of a small fragment of high-performing, predominantly white schools, Tyson alleged.
"The story of RISD is a tale of two school districts where a greater than 60 percentage point achievement gap exists between campuses at opposite ends of the academic spectrum," the lawsuit stated. "Such disparity between schools in the same district is not inevitable."
State assessment scores from 2017 are evidence of the inequitable distribution of resources between white and nonwhite schools, the suit claimed. It cited eight elementary schools in RISD where 70 percent or more of the students received grades deemed passable by the state on two or more assessment subjects. Those campuses, which include the affluent Prairie Creek Elementary School, are more than two-thirds white and less than 20 percent economically disadvantaged.
At Carolyn Bukhair Elementary School, which enrolls mostly Latino, low-income and bilingual students, only 21 percent of students met the same standard, the suit stated.
“Clearly the present board is failing the children of RISD,” Tyson’s lawsuit stated. “Now more than ever, the district needs a board which reflects the composition of the community it serves.”
The lawsuit also contended trustees favor attendance zones where they reside. Five of seven trustees live in affluent, predominantly white school attendance zones. The remaining two live in areas where white residents make up nearly 50 percent of the population.
“This power structure leaves large swaths of the district politically voiceless,” it said.
If Tyson’s lawsuit had made it to court, three expert witnesses were on hand to back his claim that RISD’s election system is unfair.
David Ely, founder of Compass Demographics, found that in two districts the combined Hispanic and African American voting-age populations were substantial enough to constitute a majority vote, according to court filings.
Tyson also asked for the opinion of Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin and expert witness in several voting rights cases.
Mayer cited several reasons why RISD’s electoral system discourages minorities from seeking office. For one, school board races have historically been uncontested, and in the off chance that an incumbent faces an opponent, the race is often not competitive, Mayer said in court filings.
“The lack of competitiveness mean that incumbents are, for all practical purposes, unbeatable,” he wrote. “… As a rule, the only way newcomers are elected to the board is to run for an open seat.”
Tyson’s election in 2004 is evidence of this trend. He has maintained that his victory was clinched only after a white incumbent retired, according to a Texas Tribune article.
When seats are contested, the result is “almost always a landslide,” Mayer wrote. In May 2017 three white candidates and one Hispanic candidate ran for school board Place 3. Incumbent Karen Clardy emerged victorious with 55 percent of the vote, while Hispanic candidate Ben Prado walked away with only 10 percent.
OPEN MEETINGS CASE
In Tyson's separate suit over meetings, he claimed trustees not only met in secret to debate matters up for discussion during public board meetings but also ensured that a paper trail of those conversations would never be found.
“The board’s flagrant and persistent violations of [the Texas Open Meetings Act] have denied the public the opportunity to participate in the democratic process,” the lawsuit stated.
The board treated public meetings as a “rubber-stamp formality,” the lawsuit claimed. Prior to meeting in public, board members convene in small groups to reach a “backroom consensus.”
For seven years trustees voted in unison on almost every issue presented, the lawsuit claimed.
“The public can no longer trust that these elected officials are open and honest, let alone trust that they will operate in the best interests of the citizens of Richardson,” the suit stated.
The district claimed Tyson’s allegations were without merit and had surpassed the statute of limitations, rendering the lawsuit null and void.
The settlement agreement means an end to the litigation as well as mounting legal fees, according to the school district.