The Texas Tribune
In Karen Hill’s eyes, not much has changed since her father’s unsuccessful bid for Richardson Independent School District’s board in 1963.
A. Maceo Johnson, who taught in segregated Fort Worth schools and earned the same salary as the janitors, was an “immensely qualified” person for the position, Hill said while presiding over the collection of tattered folders and discolored papers splayed across her dining table in a makeshift shrine to her father’s lifelong quest for equal representation.
She still has the newspaper article that credited him with prodding several young Dallas men to break a long-standing barrier and become the first Black members of the city’s police force. And the staff photo of the Dallas division of the Texas Employment Commission – an office he integrated when he worked there in the 1950s.
When he ran for the Richardson ISD board at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Hill was attending the only school in Hamilton Park, a Dallas neighborhood where Black people could buy new homes.
But even with the support of some of the community’s White residents, the “numbers just didn’t work out” for Johnson, Hill said.
Decades later, another Black man, David Tyson, would go on to win the race that Johnson couldn’t and become the first – and only – person of color to ever serve on the board of Richardson ISD, where the student population is now 60 percent Black and Hispanic. Tyson was elected in 2004 – a victory he says was largely made possible after the White incumbent he sought to challenge retired.
Now Tyson – who served six years on the board – is suing Richardson ISD and each of its seven board members, arguing its system for electing members prevents people of color from having a fair say in who represents them.
The lawsuit, filed in January and set for trial next year, is the latest in a wave of litigation against school boards in North Texas, where the influx of Hispanic families and flight of White families have dramatically transformed the racial makeup of public school classrooms. The suit aims to undo one of the last mechanisms that allow White people to keep their power in the public education system, despite their dwindling numbers in schools across the state.
Richardson ISD is one of hundreds of school districts in the state – many of them in suburban areas with similarly changing constituencies – still governed by school board members who were elected at-large, with all of the district’s voters able to vote in each race. And because the state gives local school boards the authority to go from at-large to single-member election systems, White board members in those districts would have to vote to change the same systems that keep them in power.
In legal filings, Richardson ISD lawyers denied most of the allegations in Tyson’s lawsuit, including “any assertion or suggestion that the district’s current at-large electoral system leaves the needs and concerns of the vast majority of the children of the district unaddressed.” A couple of months after Tyson’s lawsuit was filed, Richardson ISD officials announced an estimated $3.2 million program placing their strongest teachers in four low-performing schools.
Citing the litigation, they limited their comments to The Texas Tribune to a statement that their priority is to “ensure that all students throughout our district receive a quality, equitable education.”
But more than a decade after Tyson’s election to the board, Hill is still convinced that any school board candidate who didn’t have support from Richardson’s White leaders would lose a contested race.
“I think it would be pretty much impossible for a person to win an at-large seat unless the impetus came from the White community,” she said.
In other areas of the state, civil rights activists and people of color won similar legal fights long ago, diversifying school boards that were once entirely White by forcing school boards to move from at-large voting systems to a single-member approach, in which the school district is split up and voters elect representatives for their respective geographic areas.
But Richardson’s demographics are only now making such legal challenges possible under the federal Voting Rights Act.
As Richardson and other Texas suburbs become less White, the legal fight in North Texas could become a harbinger of voting rights battles to come in school districts across Texas.