COLUMN: Changing to single-member system can boost diversity

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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I suspect this column wins my all-time Most Likely To Generate 3,000 Angry E-mails Prize, so I’ll start out with a few disclaimers.

I’m not calling anybody a racist. I’m not saying anybody is acting out of malice. I’m not even saying anyone is being unreasonable.

But these are the facts:

Irving’s student body is 19.5 percent white. Irving’s school board is 100 percent white.

Carrollton-Farmers Branch’s student body is 27.9 percent white. Carrollton-Farmers Branch’s school board is 100 percent white.

Lake Worth’s student body is 39.2 percent white. Lake Worth’s school board is 100 percent white.

And the imbalance in those numbers is almost entirely attributable to the way those districts elect school board members.

There are a thousand different ways to run an election, but most districts use some variation of one of two methods.

The first is at large: Each candidate runs districtwide and represents the entire area.

The second is single-member districts: The area is divided into smaller areas, with one board member elected from each.

Boards elected at large tend to look uniform, because the members all face the same set of voters. Imagine if all members of Congress were all elected nationwide. You’d end up with even more middle-age white men than we have now.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I plan on being a middle-age white man eventually myself.)

Obviously, election rules aren’t the only factor that leads to an all-white board in districts with a lot of Hispanics. Whites, on average, vote more often than Hispanics, and voting means power. Hispanics are younger, on average, so more likely to be below voting age. And a hefty percentage aren’t here legally, which obviously bars them from the polling booth.

But I don’t think there’s any doubt that a reasonable drawing of boundary lines would take into account the growing Hispanic neighborhoods in each of these districts – and make it much more likely a minority would be elected to a school board.

“The at-large composition is very traditional, but it makes it harder for minorities to elect the candidates of their choice,” Nina Perales told me. She’s the regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has sued a number of governments over the issue in past years.

In case you’re mentally labeling me a self-hating white man, take note: The problems with at-large elections can cut in all racial directions.

Take, for example, Wilmer-Hutchins. The now-defunct school district’s population was less than 60 percent black. It had a substantial white population in its southern sector and a growing number of Hispanics.

But the school board was 100 percent black – because all the seats were elected at-large. District leaders routinely referred to the district as “black run” and chose to keep at-large elections even after a state study said single-member districts would bring the district better management and more support from a rightly skeptical public.

Single-member districts would have added a diversity of opinions – not just a diversity of race – to Wilmer-Hutchins’ board. Maybe having vigorous debates on the school board would have led to more trustees asking important questions. (Like: “Where have these millions of dollars disappeared to?” Or: “Remind me, why did the FBI just raid our offices again?”)

And there are no doubt school districts down in the Valley where a Hispanic establishment rules, and an at-large voting system serves to keep Anglos or blacks off the board.

The point isn’t to promote one race or another. The point is to have different perspectives on the board. A board where everyone agrees on everything may seem neat and tidy. But a board where people are vigorously defending different points of view can be, in the end, more productive.

I talked to Susan Thillen, who works in Lake Worth ISD. She told me all about her district’s efforts to help Hispanic students. Just that morning, she had attended a program for young Hispanic mothers, teaching them about proper nutrition for their toddlers. The district’s Web site will be translated into Spanish soon. “I know our board pays attention to the needs of all our students,” she told me.

And here’s the thing: I absolutely believe her. Educators (and school board members) are overwhelmingly decent, well-intentioned people. I don’t think white trustees in these three districts are spending their nights scheming up ways to keep Mexicans down. These are good school districts.

But they can get better.

Districts can switch to single-member in a number of ways. A voter petition can place the issue on the ballot, but that takes a lot of signatures.

Someone could file a lawsuit. That’s been done plenty of times in Texas, and they’ve met with success in federal courts. But lawsuits have a tendency to raise tensions, not lower them, and they cost everybody involved a lot of money.

The best alternative would be for districts like Irving and Carrollton-Farmers Branch to agree to a switch themselves. But the issue has been brought up before, and trustees have generally been hesitant.

That’s understandable. Who wants to lose their job?

But, as a famous white man once said, the times, they are a-changin’. Maybe it’s time for our elections to.