By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org
BEAUMONT, Texas – Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez is blocking a school board election in a scandal-plagued Southeast Texas district because it might endanger the four black members in the majority.
The school board in Beaumont, Texas, has caused the people there no shortage of embarrassment.
There was the band teacher who was put back into the classroom after being criminally charged with sexual contact with minors as young as 13. That ended as badly as one might expect, and cost the district $462,500.
There was the night school cosmetology course that got shut down when a gay student tried to enroll.
There’s the debt load weighing on the district’s 130,000 residents — about $634 million in all, $406 million of it created by the school district, according to bond records.
There was the investigative report and statistical analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about cheating on standardized testing around the country, which found with 99.9 percent certainty that there is cheating going on in Beaumont’s testing regime.
One of its contractors, who admitted submitting “altered” invoices to the district, was ordered by a federal court to forfeit $3.2 million, but the school board not only declined its share of restitution, it continues to do business with the contractor post-conviction.
The people of Beaumont know how bad things have gotten and want a new board. Two years ago, they approved a ballot measure to switch from seven geographical districts to five districts plus two at-large seats.
But one man is blocking the change – Perez, who also happens to be President Obama’s nominee for labor secretary.
Perez’s reason is simple: four members of the seven-member board are black, and any change to election procedure might endanger that majority.
The new 5-2 system might harm black voting strength, but a new 7-district system might be bad, too, so he won’t approve either plan. In the meantime, the biennial election that should be taking place May 11 has been suspended indefinitely.
The Beaumont Independent School District has no choice but to change its elections procedures. Under state law, it had to redraw its district lines after the 2010 U.S. Census to account for population shifts. That effort coincided with a May 2011 ballot measure, approved by a 56-44 margin, to switch the school district from a system of seven geographical districts, each represented by a trustee, to a system of five geographical districts, plus two district-wide seats.
At-large seats have a controversial history in the South, where some majority-white jurisdictions would use them to keep sizable black populations from electing even a single representative.
Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, most changes to electoral systems in the South and scattered counties elsewhere have to be “precleared” as non-discriminatory by the Justice Department.
In a Dec. 21, 2012, letter, Perez determined that “the district has failed” to “establish that the at-large method for the two remaining seats does not preclude African American voters from electing a candidate of choice from office.”
Whites are a minority in Beaumont, making up just 35.3 percent of the population. Still, Perez argued, there is “little, if any, support” for the conclusion that a black candidate could win one of the at-large seats.
Perez blamed the supposed “unwillingness of white voters to support a black-preferred candidate,” which ignores the facts in the city. The Beaumont City Council also has two at-large seats, one of which has been held since 2007 by Get Williams-Wright, a black woman.
Here’s what Perez had to say about that: “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.”
That’s despite the district’s history. On April 7, 1984, just after the district was created by the merger of two other school districts, an election was held under a 5-2 plan, and according to court filings, “four … African Americans were elected despite an overwhelming number of white voters in comparison to African American voters. Two … African Americans won single-member district seats and two … won the at-large seats.” (City Councilman Mike Getz said that the court filing was slightly off, and that “in 1984, the first election between the combined South Park and old Beaumont school districts, there was one African American elected ‘at large,’ Mr. Murray Frank. There was a white trustee elected to the other ‘at large’ position. The remaining five single member districts had three African Americans elected and two Whites so you did have a 4-3 African American majority. This was also at a time where the demographics in Beaumont were more than 60% white as opposed to the 35% currently.”)
Two months after Perez refused to grant preclearance to the 5-2 plan, the school board approved a plan for seven new single-member districts. They were largely the same as the seven old districts, with the borders adjusted to account for population shifts. That plan was sent off to the Justice Department for preclearance. Nobody expected trouble because it was nearly identical to the existing system.
At the same time, the board approved an election order for May 11 for just three of the districts. But the board apparently didn’t know the law.
Under Texas law, at “the first election … after each redistricting, all positions on the board shall be filled. The trustees then elected shall draw lots for staggered terms …”
The members representing the other four districts, who had been elected two years prior, didn’t even think they were up for election.
Four reform candidates, however, knew the law, and filed to run for the open seats right at the deadline.
When they realized what had happened, the members of the board majority tried to rescind the election order and revert to the districts from the past decade. A state appeals court had to issue a writ of mandamus — a type of order that forces officials to comply with the law — and hold the election for all seven seats as required by state law.
The appeals court knew the Justice Department hadn’t signed off on the tweaked map, but there was no reason to expect an objection.
“Assuming preclearance, we ordered that map to be used for the upcoming election,” the court wrote, noting that the school district “has not suggested, either in this proceeding or in a related proceeding, that the Department of Justice had expressed any objection to that map.”
But using that map would mean the members of board majority would lose their seats because of their failure to file their papers.
Perez insisted in an April 8 letter that the state court’s order was actually a “change” in the law that nobody had cleared with him. It is “the incumbents in Districts 1, 2 and 3, which provide minority voters with the ability to elect candidates of choice,” so if they’re not on the ballot, the voters are being deprived, he wrote.
Even a seven-district plan was suddenly problematic. For Perez to approve it, for him to allow the people of Beaumont to vote for a school board again in any manner, they’ll need to submit:
“1. A list of registered voters, by name and by precinct, for the May 2007 election, the May 2011 election, and the list of registered voters as it currently exists.
2. The voter history files for each voter, by name and precinct, registered to vote in the BISD.
3. Copies of any available reports, studies, analyses, summaries, or other documents or publications, including county planning commission reports and school planning reports, that contain an assessment of the current and future demographic growth, broken down by race and ethnicity, in the BISD.
4. Election returns for all elections for offices in Jefferson County held from 2003 to the present in which a black candidate participated. For each election, indicate:
a. The office sought;
b. Each candidate’s name and race;
c. The number of votes for each candidate, by precinct;
d. The number of registered voters, by race and by precinct at the time of each election;
e. The number of persons by race and by precinct, who participated in the election.”
Last week, a three-judge federal panel suspended the May 11 election indefinitely.
On Feb. 27, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Shelby County v. Holder, which regards the constitutionality of Section 5 preclearance requirements. The court is expected to strike down the requirements.
Contact Jon Cassidy at [email protected] or @jpcassidy000.