“Every step of the way it’s about education, information, and awareness,” said community organizer Vanesia Johnson, founder of Citizens Advocating for Social Equality and a member of Rise Up for Real Representation.
Rise Up is a coalition of organizations including ACLU Texas, the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity – Fort Bend Chapter, Citizens Advocation for Social Equality (CASE), the Fort Bend CAN (Community Action Network), Fort Bend Employee Federation, Fort Bend Super Neighborhood 41, League of Women Voters Fort Bend, GATEKEEPERS and the NAACP Missouri City and vicinity.
State Rep. Ron Reynolds has championed the cause for single-member districts but his legislative efforts were thwarted in Austin.
“I’ve tried for four terms through legislation. The NAACP tried through litigation. The only other way to have single-member districts is to have the board vote, but the board won’t do that without 15,000 signatures,” said Reynolds.
“I’m optimistic that with all the people engaged, we’ll have the numbers,” he said.
They want school board members to be elected geographically instead of at-large, arguing that the at-large positions dilute representation since the entire district can vote on every member.
The FBISD is predominately African American, Hispanic and Asian, but five of the seven board members are white, noted Reynolds.
As at-large members, the board represents everyone, countered board president Kristin Tassin.
“Our schools are suffering and we didn’t get the attention from the school board. The school board is supposed to be bi-partisan but no one is hearing the requests of Precinct 2 and the east end of Fort Bend County,” said Veronica Pena of the non-partisan Fort Bend Community Action Network.
“Our schools are not being upgraded, not being remodeled. The board has been at-large for over 40 years but Fort Bend has changed. We now have neighborhoods outside of Sugar Land and Katy. But when those areas are voted in, there is no balance. With single-member districts, the maps would be clearly defined,” Pena said.
Cynthia Lenton-Gary, a former FBISD school board member from 2011, remembers fighting hard to name the high school named after Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and fighting to keep from busing students from Marshall to Hightower High School. She attended the Sunday gathering bringing homemade barbecue chicken and ribs for people to feast on as they strategized, pursued volunteers, conducted voter registration, and planned future ventures.
“When we have someone directly from us they represent us and they have passion. It doesn’t matter where you live, everyone can vote and you end up having people in office who are not compassionate about the kids on the east side of the county. I’m prayerful and I’m willing to do whatever I can to help,” she said.
“Rep. Reynolds been trying to make this happen but in reality, you can’t do it by yourself. He needs people of the community behind him. But it’s not about him or any of us, but our kids,” said Lenton-Gary.
At-large system proponents favor electing council and board members by the entire electorate because they can rise above the limited perspective of a single district and concern themselves with the problems of the whole community. Also, the number of candidates available for election in at-large systems tend to be larger, according to a position paper distributed by Rise Up for Real Representation.
“However, at-large elections can weaken the representation of particular groups, such as people of color, especially if the group does not have a district-wide base of operations or is in an ethnic or racial group concentrated in a specific ward or section,” according to the position paper.
In Fort Bend County, the state representatives, county commissioners, constables and city council members are all elected from single districts.
“At-large districts are considered one of the most common and powerful forms of gerrymandering,” according to the Rise Up position paper. “Is it constitutional for FBISD’s east end residents to depend on the results of a “district-wide” race when non-east end residents are not faced with the same crisis-level issues, needs, or concerns,” the position paper asks.
The group has until Nov. 7 to gather the 15,000 signatures from registered voters from Fort Bend County.