The U.S. Department of Justice has denied the Beaumont Independent School District voters who elected to change the trustee make-up of the school board from seven single member districts to five single member districts with two at large representative seats (a 5/2 plan) when called to the polls in May 2011. According to the decision letter penned by Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, the reason for the DOJ decision is due to the retrogressive effect of instituting the change and in his opinion, racist motivations that potentially led to the change proposal in the first place.
“It is not likely that a black-preferred candidate would successfully be elected in an at-large contest. Based upon that analysis, I cannot conclude, as I must under Section 5, that the district has met its burden of establishing the absence of a retrogressive effect,” Perez stated. “Accordingly, I must interpose an objection to the proposed change in method of election for the Beaumont Independent School District from seven single-member districts to five single- member districts with two at-large positions. Because the district has failed to meet its burden of demonstrating that this proposed change will not have a retrogressive effect, we do not make any determination as to whether the district has established that the proposed change was adopted with no discriminatory purpose.”
Perez further stated that since only three of the five single member districts in the 5/2 plan provided for African-American representation, BISD would need to prove that one of the at large seats would prove favorable to an African-American candidate, thereby, continuing the 4/3 board of trustees makeup to provide for a majority African-American board. Perez looked to Beaumont City Council elections for reference as to the likelihood of the citizens of Beaumont electing an African-American at large candidate.
“In the past 10 years, numerous black-preferred candidates have sought municipal office in the city. With the sole exception of one candidate, African Americans have been unable to elect candidates of choice to the city’s at-large council positions,” he stated, further adding that, “Our analyses showed that this candidate only received about eight percent of the non-black vote in both the 2007 and 2011 elections, placing second to last among non-black voters in 2011. And anecdotal evidence suggests that even this minimal level of crossover voting was the result of an out-of-the-ordinary public endorsement and television appearance by white voters on behalf of this candidate; other black-preferred candidates have failed to achieve more than three percent of the non-black vote in at-large city council elections.”
Additionally, Perez concluded, “There is overwhelming evidence that both the campaign leading to the (May 2011 referendum) election as well as the issue itself carried racial overtones with the genesis of the change and virtually all of its support coming from white residents.
“A statistical analysis of the election confirms the extreme racial polarization that the issue created: Black voters cohesively voted to maintain the current method of election and white voters voted cohesively for the proposed change. We estimate over 90 percent of white voters, but less than 10 percent of black voters, supported the change.”
Perez was also steadfast in DOJ opinion that the 5/2 plan would most likely not be able to conform to the rigors of what is required for the department’s approval, and offered no preferred method of bringing the plan to adoptable status.
BISD board member Zenobia Bush said she is unsure of how the following weeks will change the DOJ ruling, and what the outcome will mean to voters and the makeup of the board. According to her, it is likely that the upcoming May 2013 election will have voters electing their representation under the current seven single-member districts plan.
“The citizens have voted one way and the Justice Department has voted another way,” she said. “The 5/2 plan has been shown to be retrogressive throughout the years; elements of retrogression are built on the 5/2 plan.
“I’m not sure exactly what we’ll do now that we have this ruling. This is all new for all of us, so we have to meet with our attorney to see how this will work out.”