Bias Suit Prompts School Board Election Reform

     DALLAS (CN) – A Dallas-area school district will change its system of electing trustees to settle claims that the process discriminated against Latino voters.
     Victor Rodriguez, of Grand Prairie, sued the Grand Prairie Independent School District and its board of trustees in May 2013 after candidate Gloria Carrillo was defeated in a race for a seat in the district’s current at-large system.
     She argued that the system is racially discriminatory in that it allows whites to dominate the board, though the district’s students are 63.5 percent Hispanic.
     Under a settlement announced Friday, the school district will have five single-member districts and two at-large districts in place before the May 2015 school board election.
     Rodriguez’s attorney, William Brewer with Bickel & Brewer Storefront in Dallas, said he was “pleased” the board agreed to the change that givers Latino voters “a meaningful opportunity to participate in the political process.”
     “Beyond the benefits to this school district, we believe the actions taken here are instructive to other school boards across the state,” the attorney said in a statement. District officials noted they are “hopeful” the settlement “will encourage even more participation” in elections.
     “The Grand Prairie ISD Board of Trustees contested the allegations of the lawsuit because the District has had a long history of representation on the school board by members of minority groups, and because the District has significantly closed the achievement gap under the current at-large voting system,” district officials said in a statement Monday evening. “However, recent developments in the law related to voting rights, occurring while this case was pending, demonstrate that single-member districts are inevitable based on the demographics and voting trends in Grand Prairie ISD.”
     In August, Bickel & Brewer Storefront prevailed in a similar federal voting rights suit by Latino voters against the neighboring Irving Independent School District’s 5-2 single-member district system.
     Irving ISD had switched from a purely at-large system to five single-member districts and two at-large seats in 2012, as well. Though more than 71 percent of students enrolled are Hispanic, all seven board members were white.
     Bickel & Brewer Storefront’s lawyers argued during trial that as many as two districts could be drawn with majority Hispanic voters.
     U.S. District Judge Sidney Fitzwater scrapped Irving ISD’s single-member system in August, finding that Hispanic voters are “sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single member district.”
     Evidence from the plaintiffs supports the idea that Hispanic voters are “politically cohesive” and that “the white majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it – in the absence of special circumstances, such as the minority candidate running unopposed – usually to defeat the minority’s preferred candidate,” Fitzwater wrote.

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