During this morning’s St. Johns County School Board meeting, there was re-organization and in the workshop that followed, citizens and school board members were clearly put out with recent allegations that they had racist motivations in recommending an updated district map.
Member Beverly Slough, District 1, was elected Chair and Carla Wright, District 5, was elected Vice-Chair to preside during the coming year.
The 9:30 a.m. workshop was attended by an audience of less than 20 citizens; including Supervisor of Elections Vicky Oakes, City Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline, County Attorney Patrick McCormack, and Assistant County Attorney Erika Moore. Also attending, County Commissioner Ken Bryan — who has been at the center of controversy over both veiled and overtly racist accusations in response to the School Board’s unanimous recommendation of Revised Redistricting Plan C.
School Board attorney Frank Upchurch gave an overview of the process followed by school board members in an effort to achieve equivalent districts since the results of the 2010 Census were published. Upchurch also acknowledged the wish of Supervisor Oakes and some commissioners to draw concurrent school board and county commission districts — although, that is not required by law.
The word of the day may have been “compromise” — but, compromise whose outcome is a “politically charged”, “divisive” or “destructive” community, will not be a redistricting plan that the school board seems ready to adopt.
School Board member Tommy Allen, who is elected by voters in the southwest quadrant of the county, pointed out that he is listening to voices of parents and grandparents who have been relying on the county to provide the highest quality of public education possible; some for generations. He also said that he was offended by allegations that he will make his decision based on race.
Bill Fehling, the outgoing Chairman, who represents the northeast quadrant, said that he was perfectly happy with his original support of Revised Redistricting Plan C. He said that he has not heard anything from the public or county commission, so far, that warrants changing his mind. Fehling was the first to mention that, during his term, he has never heard from parents who felt their children were disadvantaged by attending one St. Johns County School or the other — regardless of the school district in which they live.
Bill Mignon, who is elected in the southeast quadrant, quickly echoed Fehling’s observation; saying that he never heard students or family members complain about the choices of schools within their district. Mignon said that he has an open mind, that he understands the concerns of Rev. Ron Rawls and that he would not rule out a compromise plan; but he stopped short of supporting a politically charged plan simply to appease any minority group.
The majority of public speakers touched, one way or the other, on the issue of race, racism, segregation, and gerrymandering.
Alan Kelso, a candidate for County Commission Seat 5, currently held by Bryan, and his wife, Terina, stood at the podium as he spoke about favoring one minority group over another. “We are one community,” Kelso said. “Today we are not segregated and it would be wrong to single out one minority then draw school districts that will segregate them from the rest of the community.”
Jim Arpaia addressed the board, commenting that he favors integration of communities and schools as shown in the plan already supported by the school board — not racial segregation; which is how he views the redistricting plans supported by Bryan, NAACP, Rev. Rawls, and other objectors. “I’m tired of those people who see racism in everything,” Arpaia said. In his view, Arpaia says it is wrong to draw district lines merely to favor the political agenda of one racial minority or another.
Former County Commissioner Bruce Maguire frankly said, “Redistricting is not a racial issue — but, it has become a power issue.” Maguire, whose family has deep roots in the community, said that he, like Fehling, Mignon and Allen, resents people coming into the community, dragging up injustices that happened 40 or 50 years ago, then making comparisons to where we are today — alleging racist motives.
City Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline, speaking as an individual resident with children in the school district, summed up her concerns by saying she feels the re-districting plan should bring us more together — not make us more divided. Sikes-Kline strongly objected to a previous plan, still favored by some county commissioners that would separate Lincolnville and West Augustine from the remainder of the City of St. Augustine.
Rev. Ron Rawls was the only speaker who opposed the Revised Redistricting Plan C recommended by the School Board. Rawls says anything less than a plan that increases the power of black voters is a step backwards. In his opinion, efforts to advance Plan C, are designed to “keep people in their place”. He pointed out that black voters are a “protected class” and says he wants to school board to “consider us”. Rawls originally supported Revised Plan E, but not says that another new plan, Revised Plan J, authored by Consultant John Libby and County Attorney McCormack over the Veterans Day weekend, may be an acceptable compromise.
Each member of the board acknowledged the successful efforts of Superintendent Dr. Joseph Joyner, also in attendance, and the progress that has been achieved under his leadership.