“If (the controlling BISD school board trustees) have their way, there will never be an election,” frustrated attorney Mike Getz said after years of legal wrangling with the Beaumont Independent School District to implement a voter-mandated at-large election scheme for use in selecting school board representatives. BISD trustees are currently elected from seven single-member districts (7/0); the plan voters approved in 2011 calls for five single-member districts and two at-large representatives (5/2).
“They’ve been dragging their feet and have had two elections canceled now – who knows when we will ever have a legal election,” Getz wondered aloud.
Twice this year, the Beaumont Independent School District Board of Trustees election has been effectively, if not officially, canceled via court order. The first cancelation came before the May 2013 election commenced, sparked by three current trustees not filing to keep their seats as required by law and for not placing those same seats as open positions on the proposed election ballot. Texas Court of Appeals justices ruled that three new candidates represented by attorney Mike Getz would be placed on the ballot as unopposed selections for their respective districts since they did, in fact, file for the seats in a timely fashion although the spots were not properly announced by the current board representatives. BISD ultimately avoided instituting the court’s order by failing to then get preclearance from the Department of Justice to institute the “voting changes” ordered by the state court. A D.C. court permanently enjoined the election at the request of the DOJ and BISD.
The most recent cancelation came from Jefferson County District Judge Donald Floyd on Monday, Oct. 21, hours after early voting had begun and ballots had already been cast in a contested BISD District 7 Trustee race.
For taxpayers of BISD, the court order means a still-undetermined amount of time will pass before an eventual election can occur, and it will also mean more money taken from the school district’s coffers to be spent on lawyers, demographers and election costs. More than a half-million dollars has been spent in the last year on planning, and battling, a 2013 BISD Trustee election.
And litigation filed in December 2013 in federal court challenges whether or not BISD voters will at long last see their will put forth in a 2014 election.
State of the election
“We are right back to where we should be,” Getz said of the current state of affairs. “However, the next fight will be over what (5/2) map we need to use, and that is a whole other topic, but one which will probably take us to federal court.
“I am thrilled with the 5/2 results but very disturbed on the path that it took on getting there.”
Getz said that the only 5/2 map fit for use at this time is Map 5f, not the gerrymandered Map 5g that was never adopted by the board since the meeting wherein the board majority was attempting to push it through was pre-empted by a court order.
“Where we’re at right now is a very dark and bad place,” Getz added, saying that essentially BISD attorney Melody Chappell will be the lone voice heard in court as to when the indefinitely-postponed BISD election will be held. “They’ve essentially silenced our voice in court.”
According to Getz, his clients who were ordered placed on the BISD Trustee election ballot for the May 2013 as unopposed candidates by a ruling of the Texas 9th Court of Appeals have had their victory snatched from them.
“They’re just citizens out there trying to run for the school board,” he said, adding that he was dismayed by the Court of Appeal’s decision not to enforce their earlier ruling. “This is so wrong on so many different levels. I’m unhappy with the 9th Court of Appeals for letting this go on.
“Now, Melody (Chappell) is going to delay, delay, delay, and that’s how they want it. This is all about staying in power.
“We’re looking at God-knows-how-long before we have an election.”
In the meantime
BISD Superintendent Timothy Chargois outlined an aggressive timeline to prepare in case a court orders a May 2014 election. The election the courts are contemplating will replace the May 2013 school district election that was canceled amid lawsuits and court rulings that spanned local, state and national jurisdiction.
The modified schedule offered by Chargois would allow for two meetings in an attempt to solicit public input.
Chargois said that any map would need to be approved by the Board of Trustees prior to Feb. 10, which is 90 days before the May 2014 election would be held. BISD was brought to court by a group of citizens who successfully challenged the district’s adoption of a map after the 90-day threshold in a previous election call.
“We want to be ready just in case,” Chargois said of the election planning. A 2014 election is no sure thing, according to BISD attorneys. Hired legal representative Chad Dunn has argued in prior court appearances that a projected May 2014 election would be too soon to allow for the school district to prepare.
Dunn essentially used the same argument in his most recent court filings asking for a delayed election date, adding that BISD also has to contend with a federal lawsuit filed by BISD stakeholders Oveal Walker III, Gary Cantue, MacArthur English, Ronald Bishop and Alice Ramsey.
The lawsuit filed by Walker et al is asking the court to declare that, “any 5/2 plan for BISD Trustees (1) dilutes the voting strength of minority voters in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act …; (2) is intentional in its design to damage the voting rights of minority citizens; (3) is an unconstitutional gerrymander …; and (4) cannot be administered pursuant to those laws.”
The plaintiffs are also asking that BISD pay for their legal fees, and asking the court to prevent BISD from instituting any election changes without preclearance from the court and/or Department of Justice.
BISD contract attorney Dunn asked the Court of Appeals to wait and see the outcome of the federal litigation before ordering a new election.
“Obviously,” he said, “this new federal case will take time to adjudicate.”
Attorney Mike Getz said he believes the recent outside litigation is no coincidence.
“This is just another stall tactic,” he said. “They’ve essentially removed my clients from the fight; all we can do now is stand on the sidelines and watch.”
Jennifer Johnson can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 231.