Though the Voting Rights Act settlement with former trustee David Tyson is signed and sealed, Richardson ISD School Board President Justin Bono says there are still unanswered questions for Lake Highlands trustees. The three live less than a mile from each other near Moss Haven Elementary and are unlikely to be able to continue serving together now that the district has agreed to implement five single-member districts (SMDs) and elect two at-large trustees. Bono didn’t say how the group might determine which trustee(s) might bow out, as trustee Katie Patterson did in the Pearce area up north, or whether they might end up running against each other in a future district race. RISD will ask the court to delay until November its May election, which brings three seats to voters. Karen Clardy announced Thursday she’ll run for re-election from either a new LH district or an at-large position. Eron Linn, who lives in the Berkner feeder pattern, has said he plans to run, as well. Justin Bono and Jean Bono (not related) each live in Lake Highlands and have unexpired terms yet to complete.
The lawsuit alleged that RISD’s all-white board focused more resources on students and schools in prosperous areas of the district, which led to an “egregious achievement gap.” A second suit said trustees held secret meetings and erased texts and emails, which violated the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA). Trustees denied all allegations but reached a settlement with Tyson and his attorney, Bill Brewer of Brewer Storefront, Thursday. Brewer had won or settled similar lawsuits in Irving ISD, Grand Prairie ISD, Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD and the cities of Irving and Farmers Branch.
Though Brewer sought, instead of monetary damages for his client, a new method of electing trustees, Bono called the settlement more compromise for the parties than victory for Brewer. Brewer had pushed for seven SMDs, and the compromise will draw just five. Instead of being eligible to vote for all seven places, citizens will have a choice in their home district plus the two at-large seats.
Two of the districts are being carefully drawn to make electing minority candidates more likely. One, in the Hamilton Park area (A on the map above), will have a majority of likely African American voters. One, in the apartment-dense area surrounding Carolyn Bukhair Elementary (B on the map), will include mostly Asian, Hispanic and African American voters.
Fighting the lawsuit wasn’t cheap, and RISD’s settlement involved paying $385,000 in attorney’s fees to Brewer Storefront, the pro bono arm of Brewer’s firm. When added to the cost of RISD attorneys, the district has spent more than half a million dollars, Bono said.
“But if we were taking this to trial,” Bono added, “we would have spent multiples of that, just on our own side.”
Looking back at the ordeal, Bono told me he was proud of board members.
“It’s emotional anytime you’re personally named in a lawsuit, so I’m glad this group was able to rise above that and take the time to understand what was a very complex situation and set of facts and work through all that to find a compromise with the plaintiff that works for both sides.”
Though the lawsuit was costly and time-consuming, Bono said board members persisted in the work of the district during months of negotiations.
“We certainly haven’t let [the lawsuit] slow us down. We’ve continued to be focused on moving the district forward. If you follow the news of our district, we continue to launch exciting new initiatives – we called a TRE [tax ratification election] and got it passed amid everything that was going on. Certainly it’s added extra time to every trustee’s plate by adding the lawsuit on top of our normal district work, so we’re glad to get back to the normal course of business.”
Bono said he’s hopeful that the new board structure will encourage minority candidates to volunteer their time as trustees since running in SMDs of 40,000 voters will be cheaper and less intimidating than campaigning district-wide.
“I think having diverse points of view at the table leads to better decision making,” Bono told me. “We’ve tried to recruit more people to be involved in the district and run for the board, and we’ll continue to do that, and I’m hopeful that this change will be one less obstacle for those that might have seen running a campaign district-wide to be a daunting task.”
A public meeting is set for Tuesday, Jan. 29 at RISD’s administration building to discuss implementing the 5-2 plan and share proposed district boundaries, and the board plans to finalize the plan with a vote at their Feb. 4 meeting.