By Alexa Ura and Aliyya Swaby, The Texas Tribune
This story about school segregation was produced by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that provides free news, data and events on Texas public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
RICHARDSON — In Karen Hill’s eyes, not much has changed since her father’s unsuccessful bid for Richardson Independent School District’s board in 1963.
A. Maceo Johnson, who taught in segregated Fort Worth schools and earned the same salary as the janitors, was an “immensely qualified” person for the position, Hill said.
She still has the newspaper article that credited him with prodding several young Dallas men to break a long-standing barrier and become the first black members of the city’s police force. And the staff photo of the Dallas division of the Texas Employment Commission — an office he integrated when he worked there in the 1950s.
When he ran for the Richardson ISD board at the height of the civil rights movement, Hill was attending the only school in Hamilton Park, a Dallas neighborhood where black people could buy new homes.
But even with the support of some of the community’s white residents, the “numbers just didn’t work out” for Johnson, Hill said.
Decades later, another black man, David Tyson, would go on to win the race that Johnson couldn’t and become the first — and only — person of color to ever serve on the board of Richardson ISD, where the student population is now 60 percent black and Hispanic. Tyson was elected in 2004 — a victory he says was largely made possible after the white incumbent he sought to challenge retired.
Now Tyson is suing Richardson ISD and its seven board members, arguing its system for electing members prevents people of color from having a fair say in who represents them.
The lawsuit, filed in January, is the latest in a wave of litigation against school boards in North Texas, where the influx of Hispanic families and flight of white families have dramatically transformed the racial makeup of public school classrooms. The suit aims to undo one of the last mechanisms that allow white people to keep their power in the public education system, despite their dwindling numbers in schools across the state.
Richardson ISD is one of hundreds of school districts in the state still governed by school board members who were elected at-large, with all of the district’s voters able to vote in each race. And because the state gives local school boards the authority to go from at-large to single-member election systems, white board members in those districts would have to vote to change the same systems that keep them in power.
In legal filings, Richardson ISD lawyers denied most of the allegations in Tyson’s lawsuit, including “any assertion or suggestion that the district’s current at-large electoral system leaves the needs and concerns of the vast majority of the children of the district unaddressed.”
Citing the litigation, they limited their comments to The Texas Tribune to a statement that their priority is to “ensure that all students throughout our district receive a quality, equitable education.”
But more than a decade after Tyson’s election to the board, Hill is still convinced that any school board candidate who didn’t have support from Richardson’s white leaders would lose a contested race.
“I think it would be pretty much impossible for a person to win an at-large seat unless the impetus came from the white community,” she said.
In other areas of the state, civil rights activists and people of color won similar legal fights long ago, diversifying school boards that were once entirely white by forcing school boards to move from at-large voting systems to a single-member approach, in which the school district is split up and voters elect representatives for their respective geographic areas.
But Richardson’s demographics are only now making such legal challenges possible under the federal Voting Rights Act.
A district’s changing face
Stretching from the northern corners of Dallas into the suburban areas of Richardson and Garland, Richardson ISD has seen its once-miniscule Hispanic population become the biggest demographic group in its schools over the last few decades — a pattern that has been repeated in other North Texas communities.
In 1970, Richardson ISD’s student population was about 96 percent white, 3 percent black and less than 1 percent Hispanic. By last year, Hispanics had grown to 38 percent, white students had dropped to 30 percent and black students had increased to 22 percent.
But a study by University of North Texas researchers in 2014 found that Hispanics were woefully underrepresented or weren’t represented at all on many North Texas school boards, even as Hispanic students comprised at least a quarter, if not a majority, of the student population in some districts.
Claiming that Richardson ISD’s at-large election system functions as a “white-controlled referendum on all candidates,” Tyson’s lawsuit asks a Dallas-based federal district court to declare the system violates the federal Voting Rights Act by unlawfully diluting the voting power of people of color in the district.
Despite making up less than a third of the student population, whites make up about 63 percent of the electorate in Richardson ISD. And because they tend to form a voting bloc, they wield control over every seat on the board and guide district policy “without the input of and participation from those communities from which the vast majority of students come,” Tyson’s lawsuit alleges.
All seven of Richardson’s current board members are white and reside in affluent neighborhoods at the edges of the school district where most residents are white.
In a 2017 interview with a local publication before Tyson’s lawsuit was filed, board President Justin Bono dismissed the idea of moving to a single-member board. “I don’t know that single-member districts would accomplish what proponents want or make a board more effective,” Bono said.
In a more recent interview with the Tribune, Bono declined to elaborate, but said: “I don’t think any member of our board is opposed to having a more diverse board.”
For Tyson, the move to a single-member system would do more than add diversity to an all-white board. He’s hoping his lawsuit will give people of color more of a say in decision-making and ultimately help close a persistent achievement gap between students of color and their white peers under the “perpetually monolithic board.”
Targeting a “relic of the district’s segregated past”
Tyson’s challenge to the at-large system is as much about Richardson ISD’s future as it about its past.
His lawyers argue the board’s decision to keep a “discriminatory” voting system is a “relic of the district’s segregated past,” part of a long history of actions that have harmed students of color.
The disparities among the district’s schools can be traced back decades, when a federal judge in 1970 ordered Richardson ISD and hundreds of others across the state to educate black and white students together, or risk losing state and federal funding.
Richardson ISD vowed to integrate its schools and was required to file regular reports on the racial composition of students and staff so the courts could track its progress. But five years into the court order, Hamilton Park Elementary had never enrolled a white student.
The school board argued the segregation was unavoidable — and therefore not discriminatory — because the school was built in a neighborhood designed to house the black community.
But the U.S. Department of Justice argued — and a federal appeals court unanimously agreed in 1975 — that Hamilton Park Elementary had become the all-black school for students living throughout the district, not just in the neighborhood. All but one of the district’s 25 other elementary schools remained predominantly white.
That year, district leaders began recruiting white students from all over the district to attend the school and working to ensure every classroom had at most 50 percent black students.
In the decades that followed, a fast-growing Hispanic population began to transform Richardson ISD, as many white families stopped sending their children to public schools. Because most of the district’s students are zoned to schools in their neighborhoods, the black and Hispanic families living in multi-family homes and low-income housing filled nearby schools beyond their capacity.
After studying the population trends in 1995, the Richardson ISD school board developed a plan resulting in the construction of four elementary schools in mostly black or Hispanic neighborhoods. Those schools are now among the lowest-performing and most economically disadvantaged in the district.
Tyson was almost through his second term on the board in 2009 when Richardson ISD sought to be released from the federal desegregation order. At the time, Tyson supported the move to end federal oversight. He knew some schools still predominantly enrolled kids of one race, but attributed the problem to residential segregation — whites and people of color were living separately, concentrated in different neighborhoods.
But in 2010, after Tyson had stepped down from the board, the Department of Justice’s lawyers argued Richardson ISD had taken actions that “had the effect of furthering the segregation of the schools,” sometimes in violation of the court order. They pointed out that district leaders had drawn the attendance zones for the new elementary schools knowing they would have mostly black students.
The Justice Department wanted Richardson ISD to continue busing students and transferring teachers. And just like they had in the 1970s, lawyers for the district argued that majority-black schools in Richardson were a product of forces outside its control.
By 2011, the district had a more receptive audience: Federal courts had stopped strictly enforcing desegregation orders as national resistance against forced busing escalated, and had lowered the legal bar for declaring school districts integrated. Across Texas, federal judges absolved school districts of their responsibility to keep schools desegregated if they could prove that demographic shifts outside of their control had re-segregated them.
That meant Richardson ISD leaders did not have to prove they had completely desegregated their schools. They had to prove that they had complied with the order “in good faith” for a reasonable period of time, and that they had eliminated the vestiges of prior segregation “to the extent practicable.”
Judge Reed O’Connor in Dallas ruled that the district had proved it opened the new elementary schools to alleviate overcrowding in fast-growing areas, not to further segregation; he released Richardson ISD from federal supervision in 2013.
The ruling returned ultimate control over important policies to the school board, from choosing principals to drawing schools’ attendance zones.
Almost five years later, Tyson decided his faith in the board had been misplaced. He said he’d led the charge to be released from federal supervision because he believed the community could, and would, elect more people of color to the school board.
“That just didn’t happen,” he said.
Reframing the argument
Tyson’s case is set to go to trial in June. But despite the Hispanic population growth in Richardson, his case for single-member districts can’t depend solely on that community. Although Hispanics make up a quarter of the total population within Richardson ISD’s boundaries, they only make up about 11 percent of those eligible to vote.
Tyson’s attorney, Dallas corporate lawyer William Brewer, is trying another argument. One district could be drawn in Richardson ISD with blacks as the majority of eligible voters; a second district could be drawn with a majority made up of a combination of black and Hispanic eligible voters.
Richardson ISD, meanwhile, has hired John Alford, a political science professor at Rice University and one of the state’s go-to experts for defending Republicans’ map-drawing against similar Voting Rights Act challenges. Alford is expected to try to disprove that voters of color in Richardson ISD vote cohesively and that a white voting bloc regularly defeats their preferred candidates.
It’s unclear whether Richardson ISD will follow other North Texas school districts and agree to settle the case by modifying its voting system to include at least some single-member seats.
For now, Tyson remains the only person of color to serve on the district’s seven-member board. Last year, he watched eagerly as Ben Prado, a Hispanic Richardson High School graduate, ran for an open board seat.
But in May 2017, Prado lost his race, garnering the lowest share of the votes against three white candidates.
In the 2018 election, no black or Hispanic candidate ran for a position on the board.
Ryan Murphy contributed to this report. Reporting is provided as part of Community Impact Newspaper’s partnership with The Texas Tribune.
Disclosure: The University of North Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.