School Board ignores Seraphin ultimatum

In a decisive 5-0 vote this evening, Historic City News reporters watched as St. Johns School Board members ignored an ultimatum by South Street resident and business owner, Judith Seraphin, who declared that plan “E-revised” is the only plan that preserves and protects the rights of Lincolnville residents in the redistricting proposal.

After thirty minutes of public comments from eleven citizens who supported either plan “E-revised” or plan “C-revised”, each School Board member spoke in favor of plan “C-revised” — including Tommy Allen and Bill Mignon who had previously indicated support for other proposals.

Both Allen and Mignon, longtime community leaders who have seen the school district through some difficult times, say that their decision to support plan “C-revised” comes out of their concern for what’s best for St. Johns County’s school children.

Allen says that plan “C-revised” causes the least amount of disruption to the students, parents and school district. Allen sees splitting the City of St. Augustine as the wrong decision in view of the community’s plans for the 450th commemoration. Allen also observed that, across the county, minorities account for less than 6% of voters. He does not agree with those who say his support of plan “C-revised” hurts minorities since all contests, except the school board, are voted countywide.

“I have always been sensitive to our minority population,” Mignon said. “At first, I allowed emotion to overcome reason.” Although Mignon’s career with the School District spans many years, including the integration of St. Augustine High School in the 1960’s, redistricting follows the U. S. Census and only occurs every ten years. This is the first time he has faced the challenges associated with redistricting since his election to the School Board.

Carla Wright, who is not seeking re-election to seat 5, says she doesn’t want to create a mess for her successor in office to have to straighten out — realizing that it will be ten more years before the Board has an opportunity to reapportion voting districts.

Chairman Bill Fehling and Wright had already come out in support of what they see as benefits to St. Johns County’s schoolchildren through plan “C-revised”. Beverly Slough agreed, citing the importance of keeping St. Johns County’s students and their parents near the school they attend. Fehling said that he feels it is a mistake to make administrative decisions, like this, based on ethnicity; adding that, although he is elected by the voters in District 4 only, his decisions are based on what he believes is best for all public school students in the county.

During the three-minute allotments for members of the public to offer their comments, Seraphin used her time, unsuccessfully, to intimidate school board members with possible sanctions, and the promise of a lawsuit, unless they voted the way she demanded.

“Today I contacted the voting rights section of the civil rights division of the Justice Department — and, let me promise you, if you adopt any plan other than plan “E” and if you therefore decide to divide Lincolnville and West Augustine, I will file a complaint with the Justice Department.

If I’m obliged to seek the Department of Justice and ask them to investigate, I intend to report what happened here in 1998 which was intentional discrimination.

Our county commission, in order to rid itself of an elected African-American man, Moses Floyd, illegally changed from seven single voting member districts to the five at-large commissioners.

Evidence shows that the intent was to deprive African-Americans in our county of representation.

Against the backdrop of longtime segregation here, I think the DOJ will definitely want to talk about suing St. Johns. Your lawyer will also tell you that the Justice Department takes things very seriously.

That’s what Memphis learned when DOJ sued in 1989; bringing charges in an at loss redistricting that were found to dilute a minority voting strength. In 1989, my colleague, Ed Slavin, persuaded the DOJ to sue Memphis and the DOJ did sue. And, Memphis’ discrimination practices ended.

In fact, Memphis has had an African-American mayor for the last 20 years.

I assure you, that if you don’t adopt plan “E”, which is the fairest, I will absolutely persuade the DOJ to sue St. Johns County.”

Photo credits: © 2011 Historic City News staff photographer

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