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Published in Print: November 7, 2001, as Fine Lines: School Boards Clash Over New District Maps

Fine Lines: School Boards Clash Over New District Maps

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Earlier this fall, the Dallas school board was preparing to vote on a remap of its electoral districts. Then the members got a lesson in how a complicated and often dreaded once-a-decade task can stir the passions of local citizens.

A Hispanic activist, upset that the board's proposed redistricting would not carve out a third majority-Hispanic district on the nine-member board, knocked over a lectern and denounced board members before being led away in handcuffs by school system police officers.

As a scuffle broke out, the board postponed its meeting, reconvening a few days later with spectators watching on closed-circuit television. In that Oct. 1 meeting, the board voted 5-4 to approve the disputed map that does not add the third Hispanic district. Hispanic activists in the 158,000-student district say the matter is likely to end up in court.

"We make up 40 percent of the population within school district boundaries, and 54 percent of the student population," said Brenda E. Reyes, the president of the Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "Just on those numbers alone, we should have three or four seats on the board. We just want to be fairly represented."

With results from the 2000 U.S. Census in hand, state politicians and local school board members have plunged into the unglamorous but politically charged job of redrawing voter boundaries to reflect new population figures.

Twelve states have state school boards elected mainly from single-member voting districts, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. In their case, the state legislature typically does the redistricting.

At the local school board level, about 41 percent of members are elected from single-member districts, while 56 percent are elected at-large (meaning all district voters get to vote on all board members) and the remaining 3 percent are appointed, according to the National School Boards Association. Many local boards are a hybrid of at-large and single-member seats.

At the local level, most redistricting decisions are made by the school boards themselves.

Any jurisdiction with single-member districts where the population has shifted significantly is likely to have to redraw voting lines to correspond with the legal principle of "one person, one vote," laid down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Deviations in the overall population of voting districts should not exceed 10 percent, legal experts say.

What's more, states and local school boards in areas with a history of discriminatory voting practices have to submit their new district maps to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval.

Nine states and parts of seven others are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which means any change in voting procedure, including redistricting, must be "precleared" by the Justice Department or a special federal court in Washington. The states covered as a whole by Section 5 are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.

In three of the 12 states where state board members are elected from districts, lawsuits have already been filed over redistricting. In Alabama, state legislators could not agree on new map for the eight elected state board members. (The governor serves as an at-large ninth member of the board.)

"The federal courts have had to intervene before, and it looks like they will have to do it again," said Tom Salter, a spokesman for the Alabama education department. Among the most contentious issues in the remapping process are party affiliation, racial composition, and differences over geographical representation.

"It's just a matter of making everyone happy, which is extremely difficult to do," Mr. Salter said.

Lone Star Solution

In Texas, the husband of a member of the state board of education filed a lawsuit last summer asking a federal court in Dallas to approve a new map of the state's 15 districts after the legislature failed to approve a redistricting plan for the board.

Vance C. Miller, whose wife, Geraldine Miller, serves on the board, hired a consultant and got most of the other board members to go along with the plan, he said. He feared that if the board held an election next year using lines drawn after the 1990 Census, the results might be invalidated in a legal challenge.

Texas state officials treated the lawsuit as friendly, and the U.S. District Court gave quick approval.

"The trial lasted maybe an hour or an hour and a half," Mr. Miller said.

For local school boards, redistricting is an issue that typically arises only once a decade and brings with it numerous headaches. One basic principle in redistricting is that those in power use it to retain power, so protection of incumbents is often a major factor in any plan.

But some boards also try to draw district lines so that school buildings are evenly distributed. And then there is the thorny issue of race. A decade of Supreme Court rulings on racial questions in redistricting is likely to leave many legal uncertainties this time around.

For example, the high court issued several rulings in the 1990s casting doubt on the constitutionality of drawing odd-shaped districts to enhance minority voting strength. But it stopped short of outlawing any consideration of race in redistricting.

Redistricting "is going to be more complicated for everybody" in this go-round, said Michael A. Carvin, a Washington lawyer who is an expert on voting-rights law. School boards trying to meet all their redistricting goals and come up with plans that will pass legal muster "have a tough needle to thread," he said.

In the 156,000-student Palm Beach County, Fla., school district, board members decided to spend some $100,000 on a consultant to help them reapportion districts for their seven board seats.

Debra Robinson, a physician who is the only African- American member of the board, said she would naturally like to preserve her chances for re-election, as well as help bring about the election of the board's first Hispanic member. The district has a fast-growing Hispanic population.

"In an ideal world, the board would reflect the demographics of the student population," she said. To her, that would mean two African-American seats and one Hispanic seat.

"But it looks like we can't create a majority- Hispanic district because that population is too dispersed," she added. "It would be such an irregularly shaped, gerrymandered district that it wouldn't hold up under legal challenge."

In Los Angeles, Latino activists are expected to battle the mostly Anglo population of the San Fernando Valley section of the city over who will control a second seat among seven on the board of the 723,000-student school system.

A 15-member commission appointed by the school board, the mayor, and the City Council will make recommendations.

The question of a new Hispanic seat versus a new San Fernando Valley seat "is something we will really have to wrestle with," said Michael B. Preston, a political science professor at the University of Southern California and a member of the panel. "There is no question that if you look at Los Angeles, the Latino population has expanded across the city."

On the Map

Similar issues were on the table in Dallas, where the school board considered more than two dozen proposed maps over the past six months.

"We started back in April," said Ken Zornes, the board president. "We must have looked at something in the neighborhood of 30 variations."

The board currently has three blacks, five whites, and one Hispanic, although one white member represents a Hispanic-majority district and is considered an advocate for Hispanic issues. According to the district, 54 percent of Dallas students are Hispanic, 36 percent are black, 8 percent are white, and about 2 percent are Asian or American Indian.

Most board members expressed an interest in creating a third Hispanic-majority district, but some saw such an option as a threat to their re-election, observers said. Others believed a third Hispanic district might dilute one or more of the majority-black voting districts.

Mr. Zornes, who is white, voted against the plan adopted by the board on Oct. 1 because he favored creating another majority-Hispanic district.

Board members who voted for the plan said they believed another Hispanic could be elected from a district where Hispanics make up a sizable minority, if not a majority, of the population.

Mr. Zornes said that despite the disruption of one school board meeting and the contentiousness of the issue, the redistricting process was positive for the school system.

"It was very emotional, but this is the true democratic process at work," he said. "We got input from all segments of the city. As the Texas saying goes, everybody had a dog in the fight."

Vol. 21, Issue 10, Page 8

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