RICHARDSON, Texas — In the Richardson Independent School District, 70 percent of the students are minorities. But there’s never been a minority on the school board, until David Tyson.
Tyson served two terms, from 2004-2010, and he said he only won because no one ran against him.
Last year Tyson sued the school district over a lack of minority representation on the board.
“What's at the heart of that lawsuit?” I asked Tyson.
“If we're going to live in a diverse city, then we need to have diverse representation," Tyson said. "That's why it matters."
Tyson's specific complaint is about something called at-large voting. Under that system, instead of having one member represent one district, each board member represents everybody.
On this Verify journey, I’m going to explore this question: Is at-large voting good government?
I'm defining good government as being representative, transparent and open to debate. So, let’s start the reporting in Richardson.
Tyson and I drove around the Richardson district to see where the Trustees live, and plotted their homes on a map. When we got to the Lake Highlands neighborhood, we found that three Trustees live there — and they’re close neighbors.
“This is less than a mile,” Tyson said.
“It’s not even close to mile. Like, a tenth of a mile,” I said.
“Wow. I didn’t know that,” he said.
So, three of the seven Trustees are bunched up in Lake Highlands. And the other four are spread across the northern end of the district.
According to Tyson’s lawsuit, when you lay the boundaries of the highest-performing elementary schools over the map, “...five of the seven white Trustees on the RISD Board reside within school attendance zone for the eight predominantly affluent, racially identifiable white elementary schools.”
“Do the underperforming schools have any board members that live near them?” I asked Tyson.
“None, he said. "None."
Tyson's suit alleges at-large voting contributes to "a greater than 60 percent achievement gap" between the top schools – that are predominantly white and affluent -- and the bottom schools – where more students come from low-income minorities backgrounds.
“It is literally a tale of two school districts,” said attorney Bill Brewer, whose firm represents Tyson.
After spending more than $750,000 on litigation, Richardson recently settled Tyson’s lawsuit. It agreed to keep two at-large districts and draw up five, single-member districts. Two of them are drawn so a minority candidate has a fair shot at winning.
“These at-large voting schemes should be presumptively illegal. Whenever there is any real ethnic diversity, at-large districts should be seen as a way to dilute the votes of certain groups,” Brewer told me.
Brewer's firm has a similar lawsuit pending against Lewisville ISD. It has litigated or settled voting rights lawsuits with the City of Farmers Branch and the Carrollton-Farmers Branch, Grand Prairie and Irving independent school districts.
Tyson is pleased with the outcome.
“It gives us a better opportunity to be assured that all the people within the school district have the right to vote and a right to be heard at the table,” he said.
Let's head up to the City of Frisco and talk about transparency. Frisco has had at-large voting since 1917, when it was a tiny country town. Today it's known for huge development deals, like luring the Dallas Cowboys' practice facility, The Star, in 2013.
That year, the city council unanimously approved the Cowboys facility. In fact, when it comes to development deals, the council has a history debating behind closed doors in executive session and then reaching unanimous decisions in public.
I sat down for an interview with Jeff Cheney, Frisco’s mayor. He said the council is protecting its taxpayers and citizens when it discusses big development deals in private.
“Why are there so many unanimous votes on council?” I asked Cheney.
“My job as mayor is to be a consensus builder, and I think good government is when you overcome objections and concerns of the people who were elected to represent our citizens,” he said.
“You look at the Cowboys deal," he said. "If that had been published, as far as what we were offering, many other cities may have started making offers."
The Council's most recent development deal was selling a parking lot that it owned, at The Star, to Jerry Jones' development company. Jones plans to build the future headquarters of Keurig-Dr. Pepper here, leading to $600,000 dollars in new taxes, each year, to the city.
After a brief public discussion, the council voted 6-0 to approve the sale.
“You talk about win, win, win. I don't know how many wins you can stack on top of each other,” the mayor said during open council.
Frisco sold that land to Jones for $600,000 but it's worth $2.6 million. Isn't that worth a little discussion?
“It was a theoretical value of $2.6 million dollars on a piece of property that we couldn't have sold to anybody else," Cheney said. "It was a parking lot for players that had no taxable value. And they paid us $600,000 for the right to build a 17-story building."
Attorney Bill Brewer, who’s been suing local jurisdictions over at-large voting practices, does not have a suit against the City of Frisco. But he has been monitoring the community and believes at-large voting excludes minority voices, leading to unanimous decision-making.
“There is a groundswell of citizens in Frisco who don't have an effective opportunity to vote for leadership that represents their point view,” he said.
OPEN TO DEBATE
Let’s talk to an expert now.
Yurij Rudensky is a law professor at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University who has taken voting rights cases to court. He said, when it comes to good government, at-large voting is not the best way to run the people's business.
“Under an at-large system it’s possible to have a really significant portion of the population being entirely sidelined and their views not to be represented,” he said.
What happens when their views are represented?
Sometimes you get a lot of debate and disagreements. Like in Dallas, where elected officials are known for spirited and sometimes divisive council meetings.
“Is that good outcome of a bad outcome?” I asked Rudensky.
“It's the democratic outcome. I think that's the whole point of our system is a system that's predicated on debate ideas competing and compromises being reached,” Rudensky said.
OK, now we all know more about at-large voting then you ever thought we would.
And we've learned it's not always very representative, and it can lead to both a lack of transparency and limit open debate.
So, it's not that at-large voting is bad on its face. But, based on what we learned, at-large voting is certainly not the best form of government that we can have.