The Texas Tribune
Stretching from the northern corners of Dallas into the suburban areas of Richardson and Garland, Richardson ISD has seen its once-miniscule Hispanic population become the biggest demographic group in its schools over the last few decades – a pattern that has been repeated in other North Texas communities.
In 1970, the district’s student population was about 96 percent White, 3 percent Black and less than 1 percent Hispanic. By last year, Hispanics had grown to 38 percent, White students had dropped to 30 percent and Black students had increased to 22 percent.
But a study by University of North Texas researchers in 2014 found that Hispanics were woefully underrepresented or weren’t represented at all on many North Texas school boards, even as Hispanic students comprised at least a quarter, if not a majority, of the student population in some districts.
Claiming that Richardson ISD’s at-large election system functions as a “White-controlled referendum on all candidates,” former Richardson ISD board member David Tyson’s lawsuit asked a Dallas-based federal district court to declare the system violates the federal Voting Rights Act by unlawfully diluting the voting power of people of color in the district.
Despite making up less than a third of the student population, Whites make up about 63 percent of the electorate in Richardson ISD. And because they tend to form a voting bloc, they wield control over every seat on the board and guide district policy “without the input of and participation from those communities from which the vast majority of students come,” Tyson’s lawsuit alleges.
Proving in court that candidates preferred by minority voters are unable to win spots on the board without support from the White voting majority – one component of a stringent three-part legal test – will be key to transforming elections in Richardson, and Tyson points to himself as a prime example.
An active member of mostly White civic clubs in Richardson and Dallas, Tyson was encouraged to run by a group of supporters, including a former school board president, who said they wanted a person of color on the board.
He was preparing for a tough campaign, knowing that most voters would cast their ballots along racial lines. Then the incumbent he planned to challenge retired, leaving Tyson unopposed.
“I’m that one exception, and I’m the one exception because of circumstances,” Tyson said in an interview a few months after suing the school district. “I am yet to believe I could have won that race had I taken on that incumbent.”
All seven of Richardson’s current board members are White and reside in affluent neighborhoods at the edges of the school district where most residents are White.
In a 2017 interview with a local publication before Tyson’s lawsuit was filed, board president Justin Bono dismissed the idea of moving to a single-member board.
“I don’t know that single- member districts would accomplish what proponents want or make a board more effective,” Bono said.
In a more recent interview with the Tribune, Bono declined to elaborate, but said: “I don’t think any member of our board is opposed to having a more diverse board.”
But for Tyson, the move to a single-member system would do more than add diversity to an all-White board. He’s hoping his lawsuit will give people of color more of a say in decision-making and ultimately help close a persistent achievement gap between students of color and their White peers under the “perpetually monolithic board.”
Tyson alleges that the board “plainly and consistently prioritizes” a small cluster of elementary schools that enroll predominantly affluent and White students “at the expense of the rest of the community” while denying “equal voting opportunity to most of the parents of children enrolled in RISD schools.”
Tyson’s lawyers point to the academic gulf between the predominantly White and affluent students at Prairie Creek Elementary and students at Carolyn G. Bukhair Elementary who are mostly Hispanic and low-income and require some form of language assistance.
At Prairie Creek, nestled in a quiet neighborhood surrounded by expensive homes, about 84 percent of students were considered to be at grade level in two or more subjects in 2016-17, making it the district’s highest-performing school by that measure, according to the lawsuit. Meanwhile, only 21 percent of students met the same standard at Bukhair, which is surrounded by apartment buildings on a high-traffic road.
“The story of RISD is a tale of two school districts where a greater than 60 percentage point achievement gap exists between campuses at opposite ends of the academic spectrum,” Tyson’s lawyers wrote. “Such disparity between schools in the same district is not inevitable. Conscious decisions, made by elected officials, are needed to improve conditions across the vast majority of RISD.”
Targeting a ‘relic of the district’s segregated past’
Tyson’s challenge to the at-large system is as much about Richardson ISD’s future as it is about its past.
His lawyers argue the board’s decision to keep a “discriminatory” voting system is a “relic of the district’s segregated past,” part of a long history of actions that have harmed students of color.
In fact, the disparities among the district’s schools can be traced back decades, when a federal judge in 1970 ordered Richardson ISD and hundreds of others across the state to educate Black and White students together, or risk losing state and federal funding.
Richardson ISD vowed to integrate its schools and was required to file regular reports on the racial composition of students and staff, so the courts could track its progress. But five years into the court order, Hamilton Park Elementary had never enrolled a White student.
The school board argued the segregation was unavoidable – and therefore not discriminatory – because the school was built in a neighborhood designed to house the Black community.
But the U.S. Department of Justice argued – and a federal appeals court unanimously agreed – that Hamilton Park Elementary had become the all-Black school for students living throughout the district, not just in the neighborhood. All but one of the district’s 25 other elementary schools remained predominantly White.
“It was employed as a means to perpetrate the segregated character of a school system theretofore kept segregated by other means,” a panel of judges ruled in 1975. That year, district leaders began recruiting White students from all over the district to attend the school and working to ensure every classroom had at most 50 percent Black students.
In the decades that followed, a fast-growing Hispanic population began to transform Richardson ISD, as many White families stopped sending their children to public schools. Because most of the district’s students are zoned to schools in their neighborhoods, the Black and Hispanic families living in multifamily homes and low-income housing filled nearby schools beyond their capacity.
After studying the population trends in 1995, Richardson ISD school board developed a plan resulting in the construction of four elementary schools in mostly Black or Hispanic neighborhoods. Those schools are now among the lowest-performing and most economically disadvantaged in the district.
Among them is Bukhair Elementary, cited in Tyson’s lawsuit to illustrate Richardson ISD’s educational disparities.
Tyson was almost through his second term on the board in 2009 when Richardson ISD sought to be released from the desegregation order. Though he would later sue the board over the disparities the order was intended to fix, Tyson supported the move to end federal oversight. He knew some schools still predominantly enrolled kids of one race, but attributed the problem to residential segregation – Whites and people of color were living separately, concentrated in different neighborhoods.
“Is that intentional segregation or non-intentional segregation? Well, you know, how do you prove that in a court of law?” he said.
After Tyson stepped down from the board in 2010, the Department of Justice’s lawyers vehemently argued the opposite in a legal brief, saying Richardson ISD had taken actions that “had the effect of furthering the segregation of the schools,” sometimes in violation of the court order. They pointed out that district leaders had drawn the attendance zones for the new elementary schools knowing that they would have mostly Black students. Two of the schools – Thurgood Marshall and Audelia Creek – were opened without the court’s permission, they said.
The Justice Department wanted Richardson ISD to continue busing students and transferring teachers to create schools with racial makeups more representative of the district’s demographics.
Just like they had in the 1970s, lawyers for the district argued that majority Black schools in Richardson were a product of forces outside its control – such as White families gravitating toward higher-priced areas where their children became the majority in neighborhood schools – not decisions by district leadership.
“The location of Bukhair was designed to alleviate overcrowding as identified in the District’s 1996 study and had nothing to do with race,” they wrote in 2011.
By then, the district had a more receptive audience: federal courts had stopped strictly enforcing desegregation orders as national resistance against forced busing escalated, and had lowered the legal bar for declaring school districts integrated. Across Texas, federal judges absolved school districts of their responsibility to keep schools desegregated if they could prove that demographic shifts outside of their control had resegregated them.
That meant Richardson ISD leaders did not have to prove they had completely desegregated their schools. They had to prove that they had complied with the order “in good faith” for a reasonable period of time, and that they had eliminated the vestiges of prior segregation “to the extent practicable.”
Judge Reed O’Connor in Dallas ruled that the district had proved it opened the new elementary schools to alleviate overcrowding in fast-growing areas, not to further segregation. A biracial committee set up by the court to oversee the district had approved the school board’s decision, he wrote.
Even though O’Connor noted that 59 percent of the elementary schools were racially imbalanced – and not representative of the district’s overall demographics – he released Richardson ISD from federal supervision in 2013.
“Any further efforts to desegregate are impracticable,” he said.
The ruling returned ultimate control over important policies to the school board, from choosing principals to drawing schools’ attendance zones.
Almost five years later, Tyson decided his faith in the board had been misplaced. He only had to drive 10 minutes from his house to see the evidence: Audelia Creek and Thurgood Marshall were around 90 percent Black and Hispanic, more than 80 percent of their students were economically disadvantaged, and students regularly scored below district average on their state standardized tests.
Tyson said he’d led the charge to be released from federal supervision because he believed “it was time for us to stand on our own.” He believed the community could, and would, elect more people of color to the school board.
“That just didn’t happen,” he said.
This article was first published at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/12/11/richardson-isd-school-board-representation by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.