Judge: DISD broke open-meetings law; Ruling on closed-door talks could void redistricting vote

By Tawnell Hobbs
Staff Writer
Page 35A

A judge ruled Friday that Dallas school trustees violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by haggling behind closed doors while redrawing district boundaries.

Attorneys for the Dallas Independent School District and Latino plaintiffs who sued the board said the ruling by 191st Civil District Judge Catharina Haynes could lead to trustees’ 5-4 vote on a new redistricting map being voided. At least one trustee has said she would change her vote for the map.

“These trustees were essentially discussing what map they would adopt and what their story would be,” said William A. Brewer III, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “Well, they’ve lost. Now it’s a question of what the punishment will be.”

School board President Ken Zornes said he was disappointed with the ruling but said the district would probably not appeal.

“The judge made a ruling based on knowledge of the law, and I’m going to go along with that decision,” Mr. Zornes said. He added that trustees never took a straw vote on any maps and never intended to break the law.

“The board during this entire process acted in good faith,” he said. “In closed session, some things are said that people don’t want to be said in public.”

The judge set a trial for Dec. 17 to decide what to do about the violations, Mr. Brewer said. Under the Texas Open Meetings Act, Judge Haynes could void the board’s vote.

Eric Moye, an attorney for DISD who said he was present during the closed meetings, agreed that the judge could force a revote on the map, but he added that another vote would probably have the same outcome.

“I think there’s probably more support for the plan now,” Mr. Moye said. “I’m confident that a majority of the board supports this plan.”

During a months-long redistricting process, all the trustees stated a desire to create at least one more mostly Latino voting district. Two of nine districts currently have a Latino majority. The district’s overall population is about 40 percent Hispanic.

But trustees were unable to create another Latino seat without cutting any board members out of their districts or dividing other constituencies. On Oct. 1, they voted 5-4 for a map that essentially kept district boundaries the same. Mr. Zornes dissented, along with trustees Rafael Anchia, Roxan Staff, and Kathleen Leos.

Trustee Lois Parrott, who voted for the map, said she was concerned from the start that the process was improper.

“I was concerned during the redistricting process that, indeed, some of our closed sessions were improper,” Dr. Parrott said, adding that she would not support the map in a revote.

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs alleged that the board illegally discussed the redistricting process while in closed session. According to the law, matters such as lawsuits, personnel decisions, and property negotiations can be discussed in closed session.

Judge Haynes ruled that the law was violated during at least nine meetings, Mr. Brewer said.

Several hundred pages of transcripts from the closed meetings, made public through the lawsuit and released by the plaintiffs, appear to support her ruling. Trustees are not identified except by gender in some cases, and their discussions included redistricting. Superintendent Mike Moses did not attend any of the closed meetings, Mr. Zornes said.

One trustee complained that his or her district was not being drawn with re-election in mind.

“That’s not protection. That’s killing me,” the trustee said.

In another section of the transcripts, a board member said: “If we come out of here with less then three Latino seats where Latinos can run and win, public perception will be shock….We’re going to get hammered communitywide.”

In sometimes-tense exchanges, several trustees expressed highly personal reasons for wanting certain maps rejected, including one member who didn’t like a map because it would move his grandmother out of his district.

In one passage, when members express concerns about how redistricting could affect their chances for re-election, a trustee told them that if the district continues to produce good news, all will work out in the end.

“I think we all agree that [Dr. Moses] has a very good executive team in place. I think that tomorrow he is going to have a press conference and start pretty much a public relations blitz on just how good everything is going,” the trustee said. “I think all of those things scheduled, we will get a bond package out there in January which will get passed.”

Throughout the meetings, trustees were clearly concerned about keeping a united front in public.

“We know what all is at stake here down the road with other issues like a bond,” one trustee said. “We don’t want to be looking defensive and going back to the kinds of things that took place a number of years ago.”

Staff writers Joshua Benton and Tony Hartzel contributed to this report.