After an hour of behind closed doors executive session, the Fayette County Board of Education approved, in a 3-2 vote, amendments to the consent decree a U.S. Court District Judge reversed regarding a proposed district voting map submitted from the Fayette County Board of Education, effectively ending at-large voting for school board posts. On April 18, U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten, Sr. reversed his own order when he learned that the court entered its approval of the consent decree without first allowing the county defendants an opportunity to be heard regarding their objections to the consent decree, the court will vacate its February 24 order approving the consent decree.” He believed the county had been consulted and were in agreement with the proposed five district map.
Now Batten will be holding a hearing in Atlanta in U.S. District Court to hear please from not only the two defendant agencies, but also representatives of the National Association of Colored People, who are the plaintiffs in the original case that led to the redistricting. Though the hearing was originally slated for May 3 it was pushed back to May 10 to allow all parties to respond to briefs filed.
On January 9 the board of education opted to resolve the federal lawsuit filed by the Fayette County branch of the National Association for the Advance of Colored People that claimed the county’s at-large voting systems violated the Voting Rights Act by weakening the strength of the minority vote. It also contended that since the concentration of black voters in the northeast portion of the county is so high that if district voting were allowed, it is almost certain a black candidate would win but though several black candidates have sought countywide office, only one has ever been elected.
With the at-large system, the board of education was divided into five geographic districts, but every voter in the county could vote in every district. Under district voting, only voters who live in the district can vote for that district's seat.
In January, the school board voted unanimously to approve a district map, with five districts, each representing one post on the board and basically the same as the existing district map. The board then voted 3-2 to change to district voting. Janet Smola, Terri Smith and Leonard Presberg voted in favor of district voting; Bob Todd and Marion Key voted against it.
On February 24th, U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten, Sr. signed an order that would have effectively settled the suit brought by the NAACP, replacing at-large voting, and, more than that, ordering the board to pay the NAACP attorney costs of $5,000, avoiding further litigation with this out of court settlement.
The decree noted that all parties agreed that single-member redistricting provides “an equal opportunity for Blacks to elect candidates of their choice in District 5 [currently being held by Presberg]” and that district is comprised of “48.68 percent of the total population and 46.2 percent of the voting age population.” The overall total population of the school district is 106,567 people, of whom 75,803 (71.1 percent) are white and 21,395 (20.08 percent) are black. The total voting-age population is 78,468, with 57,766 (73.6 percent) being white and 15,247 (19.5 percent) black.
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.”
Candidates for selected seats must have lived within the district they will be running in for at least a year prior to the election and an added condition was that newly appointed district 5 board member Leonard Presberg’s seat will also be up for the election process. Presberg was appointed to the seat to replace the late Dr. Sam Tolbert, who passed away in November 2011 before finish his term. The race in this case would amount to a special election, with the winner holding the seat until 2014. Smola, Smith and Key are also facing the end of their terms, so those seats will likely be challenged.
On March 5, the Fayette County commission filed a motion to vacate the consent decree and final judgement, arguing that the remedy the board of education and NAACP agreed to is not authorized by law and that it violated state law because a Section 2 violation hadn’t yet been established, that the decree cannot be imposed when there is no established violation of the Voting Rights Act and, more than that, the school board didn’t have the authority to make changes to the local constitutional amendment and that the method of filling vacancies is contrary to state law.
The NAACP, as the plaintiffs in the suit, pointed out that the county lacks the standing to challenge the court’s approval of the consent decree or the legal right to file an objection of the decree the school board and the NAACP entered into because it “imposes no legal” obligation on the part of the county.
County attorney Scott Bennett said the county had no choice but to file their opposition since the consent decree undermined their own position in the lawsuit, which was that there is no Section two Voting Rights Act violation.
The county responded that the decree imposed a number of duties on Tom Sawyer, the Board of Education Voter Registrar, and the county was ultimately responsible for providing local government services, including the board of elections’ services.
The board of education’s approved amendments to the consent decree “admit that the current at-large method of electing members to the Board of Education violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
Coming back after that executive session meeting, Smola, Smith and Presberg all voted for the action, while Dr. Bob Todd and Marion Key were opposed.
“For me,” said Smola, “although I do believe the issues at hand are likely true and proveable in court, the greater issue is that we risk spending millions of school system dollars defending a political lawsuit.”
Smola said that when she had asked about the cost of defending this suit, she’d received quotes from a half million to over $2.5 million.
“In my mind, as we’re about to go into a work session to talk about closing schools in order to save money, it flies in the face of reason to turn around and spend millions fighting a political lawsuit. It also asks the questions- how many teachers are we willing to lay off, how many books are we not buying, how many programs will we have to cut to defend this suit. There is no insurance for this. This would come out of academic dollars and as a board member and a member of the community my opinion is it is not worth spending another nickel on what would be taking dollars out of classroom.”