Trustees in the Richardson school district last week settled a federal voting rights lawsuit that will fundamentally change how the Dallas-area district elects its leaders.
However, the settlement also allows the district, at least for now, to dodge serious allegations that the school board has systematically violated another statute – Texas’ open meeting law.
Former trustee David Tyson Jr. filed both the voting rights lawsuit and a separate suit in state court in which he alleged that trustees for many years have routinely gathered in small groups, in secret, to discuss issues outside of public view, and then deleted all paper and electronic evidence of the meetings.
In the voting-rights settlement, the school district agreed to move from at-large elections of all trustees to election of five trustees from single-member districts and two at large, a major change expected to increase racial diversity on the board. (Tyson is the only African-American ever elected to the board.) The district will change this year’s trustee elections from May to November to give it time to develop maps for the new voting plan.
In return, Tyson agreed to drop the open-meetings suit. But his attorney said that, if the board does not change its long-standing practice of secret small-group meetings, “we will be right back in court.”
Court records in the voting case show the district was trying to avoid any depositions of its trustees. The settlement accomplishes that — for now.
Tyson alleged the secret meetings are still going on. He noted in his complaint that the board has voted unanimously over 500 times in the last seven years, with none of those votes “substantiated by any meaningful, documented discussion or deliberation.”
The settlement requires the school board to undergo open-meetings training. However, the district said in a press release regarding the settlement that the board already participates in training required by the Texas Government Code for elected and appointed public officials. District spokesman Chris Moore said the members all take the basic training and “go at least two sessions beyond the requirement.” All open meetings training in the state is done by state-sanctioned agents.
The settlement, Moore said, requires “no change at all” from that current training.
Dallas attorney Bill Brewer III, who represented Tyson in both the voting rights lawsuit and the open meetings complaint, disagreed. He said the training agreed to is more than what the board had previously engaged in.
“We hope that through this settlement, the training will be sincere and thorough and will shine a bright light on this,” Brewer said. “And after this training, if the actions of the board mirror those actions of the past, it will be hard to argue that their conduct is not willful and intentional. And we will be right back into court.”
Tyson alleged that the board repeatedly engaged in secret communications before votes and “the Board would then vote on the issue in question at the open meeting, knowing that a unanimous decision had already been reached.”
“The Board members are fully aware that these mini-sessions are improper and [go to] great lengths to conceal their existence,” the complaint said. “In fact, when a request is issued for certain Board members to disclose their emails, Board members erase any record of their improper activity.”
Richardson trustees denied the open-meetings claim in its court-filed response, “and they still [deny it],” Moore said. In voting rights case, the district, despite the settlement, denied that its at-large voting system had failed to provide “equal voting opportunity to most of the parents of the children enrolled in District schools.”
The type of conduct Tyson outlined in his open-meetings complaint is called a “walking quorum,” and directly violates the state’s open meetings law.
Then-Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote in a 2005 opinion, “Members of a governmental body who knowingly conspire to gather in numbers that do not physically constitute a quorum at any one time but who through successive gatherings secretly discuss a public matter with a quorum of that body” violate the law.
When he filed his action in January, Tyson said the practice was ongoing at the district and has been for at least 15 years.
Tyson’s allegations have been voiced over the years by others.
“The [open meetings lawsuit] was an important case and there were important details regarding how the trustees handle business that could have been exposed,” said Lynn Davenport, a local parent who lost a bid for the board in 2017.
“I know the compromise was better than nothing, but the open meetings situation is very serious,” said Davenport, who lobbied for transparency during her campaign. “You can see that the district would rather pay money than face depositions.”
The settlement includes a payment of $385,000 by the district to cover Tyson’s legal costs. Tyson sought no monetary damages in either his open meetings challenge or his voting district complaint.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].