School Board: “Compromise”

The word of the day was compromise — at this morning’s meeting, St Johns County School Board attorney Frank Upchurch laid out the changes that have occurred since the board unanimously recommended “revised plan C” then listened as 4-of-5 members changed their votes; settling for “revised plan J”.

Although there was not unanimous agreement on the use of the word “compromise”, the term was used to describe the redistricting plan worked out over the Veteran’s Day weekend by consultant John Libby and St Johns County Attorney Patrick McCormack.

Libby and Supervisor of Elections Vicky Oakes told Historic City News this morning that they were surprised at some of the supporters of plan J — given their opposition of its predecessor, “revised plan E”.

The school board members are elected only by the voters in their respective school board district — not countywide, like county commissioners. Politically speaking, the election method, known as “single member districts”, makes school board members very accountable to voters in their district. And, that’s the rub.

Countywide, Black voters only represent about 4.2% of all voters and non-white voters combined only represent about 9.6% of all voters. One of the requirements during reapportionment of school board districts is to maintain compact district boundaries — something accomplished by the school board’s favored Plan C.

Black leaders from the NAACP, Hastings Ministerial Alliance, West Augustine CRA district, and others, spoke against the plan originally recommended by the school board when they determined that it only allowed African-American voters to represent 10% of the total voting population in District 2.

They gave their support to a gerrymandered “revised plan E” that would increase black voters in District 2; in part, by splitting the City of St Augustine in half — attaching the historically black Lincolnville community to Hastings and West Augustine.

When the school board sent their recommendation for Plan C to the St Johns County Board of Commissioners, it was dismissed in favor of the “compromises” offered in Plan J.

Oakes made her request to the School Board this morning that they approve “revised plan J”, in view of the action of the county commission; in order that the county commission districts will mirror the school board districts as they have in the past.

It was assumed that voters would be confused otherwise. It was known, although not expressed in exact dollars and cents, that printing precinct ballots would be more expensive if some had one slate of candidates than others.

District 4, represented by former Chair Bill Fehling, has been the most stable in terms of population. “I am not affected by the selection of plan C or plan J,” Fehling said. He went on to say that he felt pressured by political interests; including a threatened lawsuit by a minority of residents who he described as having their own agenda. “I am elected by voters in District 4, but, I make decisions that are best for the children across the entire county.” He said that his opinion of Plan C had not been diminished by the threats, then voted accordingly.

District 5, represented by Carla Wright who is leaving the board this term, said that she still supported Plan C but felt she had no choice than to vote for Plan J to keep the peace.

District 3, represented by Bill Mignon, made the motion to accept Plan J. He was an early supporter of Plan E but voted with the rest of the board to recommend Plan C — saying at the time that he had previously spoken with his heart and not his best judgment. He, too, said that Plan C was the best plan for the schools, the students, the faculty and everyone involved, and that he resented and was offended by comments in letters to the editor and made during public comments at planning meetings that portray school board members as racists if they support Plan C. He ended up voting for Plan J.

District 2, represented by Tommy Allen, is most affected by the decision. He had asked for additional changes to Plan C, even though he says he voted for it because it was the best plan offered. As he looked at the Plan J map in more detail this morning, he said that it didn’t accomplish the changes that he preferred. He said he was going to vote for Plan J although he still believed that Plan C was the best plan.

District 1, represented by Chair Beverly Slough, changed the most because of the influx in residents since the last Census. Slough did not elaborate on her reasoning other than to say that she agreed with opinions and observations already made by the other commissioners, then she voted for Plan J.

The final vote was 4-1 in favor of matching the county commission’s “revised plan J” with Bill Fehling of Ponte Vedra Beach dissenting.

“I am glad this only happens every ten years,” School Board Chair Beverly Slough remarked. “I most likely will not be here when it must be done again.”

Photo credits: © 2011 Historic City News staff photographer

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