“We can’t unscramble the eggs, but we can move forward as a community if we have enough forward-thinking people across racial and denominational backgrounds to come together,” the Rev. Oveal Walker III told reporters during a press conference called by the Beaumont chapter of the NAACP on Wednesday, March 5, sparked by concerns that the community is becoming increasingly more divided along racial lines in disputes over how business is being conducted at the local school district. Walker said that a committee of community members from multiple backgrounds and experiences having open, honest talks could help to produce the change in Beaumont that residents have been unable to exact at the polls.
Nearly two hours of dialogue was exchanged between the assembled ministers and their audience of mostly media representatives peppered with concerned citizens, both black and white. While some in the audience praised the service of the Beaumont Independent School District Board of Trustees during the meeting, the focus of the exchange centered on how to improve an obviously flawed system running amok at BISD.
Beaumont NAACP leader Paul Jones said he had three main concerns when it comes to BISD – unlawful or criminal activities by BISD employees/contractors, the quality of education afforded African-American children, and “unfair scrutiny and demonizing” of BISD. Additionally, according to Jones, rumors that the NAACP or the African-American community as a whole supports criminal activity are “outrageous” and insulting. Furthermore, he said, “We do not condone criminal or unlawful acts by anyone,” black or white, he then noted.
In a prepared statement to the press, Jones admonished community members who have promoted the reintroduction of at-large BISD trustee representation into the BISD election plan, a measure he believes to be a racially discriminatory voting scheme. Voters adopted the referendum to select BISD trustees via five single member districts with two at-large representatives voted on by the totality of the city.
“At-large elections are inherently discriminatory and disenfranchising to ethnic and language minority voters,” Jones stated. “They are remnants of a broken past. They dilute and provide less representation to minority voters, and they’re retrogressive compared to single-member district systems. I am very aware of the decision the Supreme Court made, which took away the coverage that only applied to a few states; however, they did not change the law, and therefore did not change what the at-large voting process is all about.”
Jones went on to state that feuding over the election scheme could have contributed to the current state of BISD’s affairs.
“Why have we spent time and money trying to take us back in time? Just imagine if we had spent all this effort on improving the district,” he stated. “Maybe we would not be in this predicament regarding the pending accreditation issue. Our most valuable resources are our children and our teachers. There should be a collaborative effort of the entire community to help them be the best they can be. Be assured, if we do not, in the end, we will all pay, and pay dearly.”
At the conference, Jones conceded that organizing talks between differing factions of the community could have also saved the district millions of dollars, and directly addressed the district’s continued connection to contract electrician Calvin Walker, who admitted in a plea deal arrangement with federal prosecutors that he altered invoices submitted to BISD for payment that cost taxpayers more than $2 million. Had community members discussed their concerns in civilized discourse, a public outcry to facilitate the return of the $2 million Walker forfeited as part of his federal plea deal could have been reached, he said.
“The problem was we were not a united front then,” Jones said. “If we’d approached it differently, the outcome would have been different.”
The Rev. John Adolph, among the assembled ministers at the Wednesday press conference, said he tried on multiple occasions to arrange a manner in which BISD could retrieve the funds forfeited by Calvin Walker in his federal plea deal. Due to the community divide, Adolph said he was frustratingly unsuccessful in his quest.
“I tried, I really did,” Adolph said, adding that the district not only needed the money, but also needed the public trust that would have come with citizens being able to see that district leaders were looking out for the best interest of the taxpayers and the children served by the school district. “We need that harmony back in our community – badly. If there are political hindrances to that, then we need to fix those political hindrances.”
Adolph said that while it is best general practice for ministers not to become involved in any political arena, the controversies surrounding the local school district are so plentiful and detrimental to the community that the local clergy need to become involved.
“I just hope it’s not too late for our community,” he said. “If silence signals consent, then we sent the wrong signal.
“When you have millions missing and other serious allegation under investigation … the minority leaders in our community don’t stand for that.”
NAACP leader Jones said the elected leaders of BISD should “step back and take a look at themselves … put their personal interests aside and focus on the kids.” However, he added, “I don’t know if the current board can do that.”
Whatever the fate of the current BISD Board of Trustees, Jones said, the community would still benefit from more all-inclusive exchanges of ideas and information.
“Do we have problems? Yes. That’s why we’re here to try to work through them,” he said. “We do care about our kids. We do care about what’s right.
“We feel like if we come together with solutions, we could come up with a better way.”