NAACP wins lawsuit in settlement: BoE goes 3-2 for district voting
A seismic shift in Fayette County Board of Education politics occurred Jan. 9 when the school board voted 3-2 to accept a proposal to move to district voting. Board member Leonard Presberg, appointed just two months ago, provided the swing vote that carried the motion, calling it “the right thing to do.”
[Click on the link below this story to read the proposed court settlement.]
That brings to a likely resolution the school board’s portion of the mid-2011 redistricting lawsuit filed by the Fayette County Branch of the NAACP. The consent decree proposal that would settle the lawsuit and institute district voting for school board seats will go before U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten, Sr., who is expected to sign off on the settlement.
The 3-2 vote came with board members Presberg, Terri Smith and Janet Smola in favor of the motion and board members Marion Key and Bob Todd opposed.
The proposed consent decree approved by the school board states, “The parties have agreed upon a single-member redistricting plan that provides an equal opportunity for blacks to elected candidates of their choice to the Board of Education in District 5, in which blacks comprise 48.68 percent of the total population and 46.2 percent of the voting age population.”
The decree also states that, “Each member of the Board of Education shall be elected by a majority of the votes cast by qualified electors residing within the boundaries of each respective single-member education district.”
The decree also notes that candidates for election to the school board must have resided in the district at least 12 months prior to the election date.
A further condition in the consent decree states that newly appointed District 5 board member Leonard Presberg will be up for election in November.
The decree also requires that the Fayette County Board of Education, as defendants, must pay the defendant’s attorney costs and expenses amounting to $5,000. Both parties in the case agreed to avoid further litigation and settle out of court.
If approved in federal court, the new district voting method will first affect school board members Smith (District 2), Key (District 3) and Smola (District 1), who are also up for reelection this year. Qualifying for the seats will be in April with the primaries coming in July.
The net effect will be that four of the five members of the board of education will be up for reelection this year, and all will be elected by district. Not one will face all Fayette County voters again.
The vote Monday night was 3-2 in favor of accepting the proposed consent decree.
Presberg in making the motion to move to district voting read a prepared statement.
“Tonight the board has the opportunity to take the historic step toward reconciliation. Through our action tonight we reaffirm the concept that each and every voter should be able to elect a representative that is accessible and accountable to the district they represent. Each of our districts vary greatly in demographics, density, commercial activity, number of schools and a variety of other factors. Each and every voter in our county should have the right and ability to elect a school board member that is a member of their own community and is aware of their unique local concerns.
“The fact is that the at-large voting method used for our elections is most likely against the law. Not only would it be a huge waste of money for our cash strapped system to fight this lawsuit, but it is one that I do not believe we would win. But the fact that we cannot win only underscores the point: settling this lawsuit and moving to a district voting system is the right thing to do. For too long too many of our citizens have felt disenfranchised.
“I am proud to be able to make this motion and vote for this settlement. This day has been a long time coming and we reach it only though the hard work of a lot of concerned and dedicated citizens. This has been a divisive issue in our county for far too long. We need to move forward, together and united, to deal with the very real issues of finances and capacity that face our district. We need to move forward, together and united, to make sure our system is teaching the 21st century and technology skills that will benefit all of our children. We need to move forward, together and united, to continue to push the Fayette County School System towards not just maintaining one of the best systems in the state, but becoming one of the best school systems in the country.
“I urge all of my fellow board members to join me in voting for this motion,” Presberg said.
Todd in commenting on his “no” vote after the meeting referenced Fayette County’s history.
“I agonized over this for a long time. But I went back to the fundamental fact that this county in the 1970s had just started to grow. We had district voting and the districts began to compete to protect and promote their own districts,” Todd said. “Then it was decided in a public referendum to go to countywide voting so that elected officials would be held accountable for their actions. Today, I think we should let the voters continue to be able to vote countywide or else put it up to the voters in another referendum to see if they want to go back to district voting.”
Key when asked why she voted in opposition to district voting said all school board members should “be accountable to the whole county because it’s a countywide school system. With district voting each member might look out for his or her own district instead of looking out for the school system as a whole.”
School board attorney Phil Hartley after the meeting was asked how the move to negotiate and arrive at a proposed settlement came about. The move was based on a discussion in executive session and required no vote from the school board, Hartley said, adding that there can be no vote before there is a completed document.
“There was an understanding of the interest to explore (a settlement) that came out of executive session, just like with any other client,” Hartley said. “This is what attorneys do, talking with the other side about the issues, about how to explore the issues and see if they can be settled.”