Hold your peace
Community members had two opportunities to voice concerns regarding the Beaumont Independent School District’s (BISD) proposed districting maps and now, during a meeting scheduled for Feb. 21, the Board of Trustees will have the final say on which scheme will be in effect for the 2013 voting season.
Sparse attendance marked both community comment meetings held Jan. 31 at West Brook High School and Feb. 5 at Central High School. Those who did show, however, offered varying opinions on what the BISD board should do when it comes to drawing district lines within the city.
Voters had elected to change the way BISD trustees are selected from seven independent district seats (7-0) to five independent district seats with two at-large representatives selected by the entirety of the voting populous (5-2). Proponents of the 5-2 change say at-large representatives offer more accountability from members of the elected board. Opponents of the 5-2 plan assert that at-large representation dilutes the power of the minority vote.
An initial ruling from the Department of Justice gives credence to the opposition. According to the decision letter, penned by Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, the reason the DOJ nixed the 5-2 plan is due to the retrogressive effect of instituting the change and, in his opinion, racist motivations 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.”
BISD board trustee Mike Neil said that the DOJ rejected only the plan put forth by BISD, not the voter’s intent of moving to 5-2.
Perez’s opinion stated that since only three of the five single member districts 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. Neil said the 4-3 minority majority would be possible, but hints that the majority of the school board trustees do not want the voters’ intent to be realized.
“Eleven thousand people voted for the 5-2 change,” Neil said. “That’s not a small number of people. The 5-2 plan is not a dead issue. The DOJ did not reject the voters; all that was said was that the plan we submitted was retrogressive.”
“It’s time we move on with the 7-0 plan,” said activist Paul Jones, who led the Community Advisory Bond Committee. “We knew all along that the 5-2 was retrogressive, and we’re just wasting our time.”
Perez looked to the city’s past elections for reference as to the likelihood of the citizens of Beaumont electing an African-American at-large candidate and concluded that area is rife with racial division.
“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, “There is overwhelming evidence that both the campaign leading to the (May 2011 5-0 districting 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.”
Beaumont resident and former trustee candidate Marcelino Rodriguez said although much consideration has been given to two races – black and white – those aren’t the only people who make up Beaumont.
“I’m Hispanic. We’re a minority, and we don’t have representation,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t have any representation, and we make up a large population of the school district. There are no Asian or other ethnicities represented, either.”
BISD-contracted demographer Glenn Koepp said the two maps submitted by his agency are of the 7-0 method of districting, and neither solution provides for a Hispanic majority in any district.
“The most we could get is a 25 percent saturation,” he said. “It just wasn’t possible to get it any higher than that.”
BISD board president Woodrow Reece asked if a Hispanic district could be gerrymandered, but the board did not elect to require Koepp to draw up any additional maps. Reece said that the board will decide between one of the two 7-0 plan maps already proposed when the board meets again Thursday, Feb. 21.
“Election time is upon us and we will be presenting, after (Feb. 21), one of these plans to the DOJ,” Reece said. “I hope that answers all the questions.”
Any further inquiries should be directed to BISD superintendent Dr. Timothy Chargois, Reece said. The board elected to preclude board members from having access to the demographer for the remainder of the districting process.
Also notably absent from the conversation is BISD board attorney Melody Chappell, who was in Washington D.C. during the Feb. 5 community meeting. In correspondence between the board attorney and trustee Neil, it was apparent that not all the board members were in agreement as to Chappell’s trip to the nation’s capitol.
“Melody, I want to express my disappointment to find out you were less than truthful with the trustees about the reason you were not going to be able to confer with the DOJ until the first week of February,” Neil wrote to the BISD attorney. “When (BISD board trustee) Tom Neild asked why you were waiting so long, you made a big deal out of the fact that flights and hotels were not available into D.C. due to the inauguration next Monday. I went online and found flights with open seats every day next week, including Inauguration Day itself. There was an abundance of hotel rooms available each day of the week, including Inauguration Day. You really seemed to lean too much on the Inauguration Day reasoning. I doubt that the DOJ is shut down for the entire week because of this.
“However, I would have rather heard that your schedule was full or that the DOJ could not meet until the first week of February than lie about the lack of flights and accommodations. I really wish you had enough respect for the system to actually get going and do your job instead of continually dragging the process out because you and your cronies do not agree with the majority of the voters. I think the better, and truthful, reason is that you have every intention of running out of time for the 5-2 plan for 2013. That has been apparent from the start, and something I have mentioned for over a year. The good news is that the wording on the ballot last election did not limit us to 2013. If need be, we will patiently wait until the (attorney general) answers the opinion request and the brief.”
A supplied response from Chappell says, “I would suggest that if you found a ticket that cheap, you book it. I am a professional and will do my job regardless of your threats and/or feeble attempts at intimidation. Again, I represent the board, not individual board members. If the tickets are so cheap, then please explain to me why your followers are attempting to take up a collection for you to fly to Washington.”
Neil asserts that Chappell is not keeping the entirety of the board in mind when she operates, however.
“The problem is that you do not represent the board. You seem to represent only certain trustees,” Neil retorted. “The reason people are offering to take up collections is not because the price of the ticket. It is because you can’t be trusted to give a fair representation of what is discussed with the DOJ. As you have in the past (discussions with Secretary of State and U.S. Attorney), you will bring back what you want us to hear. That is the reason that Tom Neild asked to have it recorded or have us sit in with the people in the meeting.
“I just wonder why the four board members voted that thought down.”