Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Single Member Districts are not the Way to Diversity

Single member districts are not the way to diversity. Maybe elsewhere, with different geography and demographics, but not in the Richardson ISD, anyway. Carol Toler of the Lake Highlands Advocate has been asking RISD trustees (current and former) about RISD adopting single member districts. Toler first raised the issue in an interview with new RISD board president Justin Bono. Bono responded reasonably in my opinion:
I don’t know that single member districts would accomplish what proponents want or make a board more effective, just given how our district is laid out. Our board would welcome a more diverse pool of candidates and colleagues, and we’re focused on getting more diversity on strategic planning committees, diversity of backgrounds and geography as well, so that there is a greater pool of potential board candidates. Ultimately, it has to be the right time for any candidate to step into board service.

That prompted David Tyson, former RISD school board trustee, to comment, "Since Mr. Bono has started a discussion about diversity on the RISD School Board and single member districts let's talk about it." Technically, it was Carol Toler who started the discussion, but whatever. No one else commented, so Toler did a separate interview with Tyson. Tyson came this close to endorsing single member districts.
I think the board needs to study single member districts because — for whatever reason — people aren’t stepping up to the plate to run. I’ve recruited people, and overwhelmingly, they cite time as a reason not to run. People know their community, but it requires time to reach the entire district. And there’s a fear of running — they don’t think they can win.
That prompted Lynn Davenport, former candidate for Richardson ISD board of trustees, to share Toler's interview with Tyson on her own campaign's Facebook page, strongly endorsing single member districts herself. That echoed Davenport's Facebook post of May 9 in which she argued:
In order to campaign in our at-large district you must cover all of Richardson, a tiny piece of Garland, and 60% of the district that is in Dallas.
Source: Facebook.
This unintentionally reveals one of my objections to single member districts for the RISD. The RISD does not cover *all* of Richardson, contrary to Davenport's statement. The parts of Richardson that are in Collin County are in the Plano ISD. In my opinion, someone who isn't well versed on the boundaries of the school district probably isn't ready to serve as a trustee for that school district. Single member districts make it more likely that we'll get such candidates.

Yes, it's still difficult to campaign across the entire school district with its confusing boundaries. But if you want to make informed decisions that are in the best interest of the district as a whole, you should be very familiar with the schools, students, and neighborhoods all across the district *before* you are elected. If you think campaigning is time consuming, wait until you are elected. Life comes at you fast after you take the oath of office.

Davenport also argues:
RISD is an at-large district and we will never have diversity of color or diversity of thought with the current system. It's not possible.
At-large systems allow 50 percent of voters to control 100 percent of seats, and typically result in racially and politically homogenous elected bodies. Single-member districts make it possible to draw individual districts where political, racial or ethnic minority groups can control individual seats. At-large systems have frequently been struck down for not providing communities of color with fair representation.
Source: Facebook.
Davenport is conflating different issues here. It's true that the courts have sometimes struck down at large systems in order to enable diversity of color, but courts have never done the same to achieve "diversity of thought" as Davenport puts it.

As for "diversity of color," there's no evidence to believe that RISD's at large system is preventing diverse representation that single member districts would not prevent. Toler helpfully provides a table that shows that RISD as a whole is 39.5% Hispanic. Suppose RISD adopted single member districts. The likely electoral boundaries are usually assumed to be the attendance boundaries of RISD's four high schools. According to SchoolDigger.com, Hispanic enrollment at the four high schools ranges from 30% (Lake Highlands) to 31% (Berkner) to 40% (Pearce) to 41% (Richardson). When the single member districts have approximately the same diversity as the district as a whole, adopting single member districts is unlikely to directly result in ethnic diversity. Maybe drawing crazy gerrymandered districts could create, say, a safe Hispanic seat on the school board, but it would likely have to zigzag across high school attendance boundaries, maybe several. Is that what Davenport is asking for?

I support efforts to increase diversity on elected bodies like school boards, but given RISD's geography and demographics, adopting single member districts is just not an effective way to achieve the diversity we seek. Besides, single member districts also bring with them drawbacks, which I won't go into here to keep an already long blog post from getting much longer. Why introduce new problems if the change doesn't solve the problem it's claimed to? The way to achieve diversity at the top is through increasing diversity throughout — on district committees, in PTAs, in booster clubs, service clubs, etc. Increase the diversity of the volunteer groups that school board trustees usually come from and you'll increase the diversity of the school board itself without dividing the community with the false promise of single member districts.

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