School board appealing court order to alter election method

A six-year battle over the election of Lexington 3 school board members has cost Batesburg-Leesville area taxpayers $700,000, a tab that's likely to soar.

School leaders are battling a bid by leaders of the local NAACP to end Lexington 3's at-large voting method, which critics say dilutes black political power.

Board members are appealing a court decision that ordered them to propose a new election method, perhaps to include electing at least some members from districts. Their appeal adds to the cost of the legal battle amid an economic squeeze.

The rising price tag is causing some community leaders to say it's time to settle the dispute.

"There are better ways to spend a dollar than being caught up in a never-ending lawsuit," veteran Town Council member Rita Crapps said. "It's time to move on."

It's up to board members to make that decision.

The district is paying for the case from the same pot of money that finances operation of four schools in the town, on the western edge of Lexington County.

Tight finances led Lexington 3 last spring to lay off four teachers and two part-time staff members, not replace 17 other employees who retired or left, require employees to take at least five unpaid days off and raise taxes.

The job cuts amounted to 7 percent of a 350-member staff. The property tax hike added $36.80 per $100,000 valuation on businesses and industries.

Those decisions - affecting the current academic year - came shortly after the board agreed to appeal after losing in federal court in Columbia.

That step is largely responsible for $184,000 spent on the legal battle since Jan. 1.

Lexington 3 spends $1.7 million per month to run its schools, officials said.

The $700,000 that school board members have spent since the legal dispute began in 2003 could double.

Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, who are arguing the case for the NAACP, are asking courts to approve $524,000 for their expenses. That bill will rise, since work on the appeal is under way.

Under federal standards, Lexington 3 would pay the ACLU's costs if its appeal fails, since the dispute is political.

School officials revealed the amount the district has spent so far in the case after a Freedom of Information Act request from The State.

The challenge to Lexington 3 elections is led by an ACLU team experienced in attacking what it considers discrimination. The ACLU has forced election changes in 20 municipalities, school districts and counties across South Carolina during the past 25 years.

But settlement efforts with Lexington 3 failed, ACLU lawyer Laughlin McDonald said.

"People want to protect the system that got them elected," he said.

As for school board members, they insist at-large elections assure candidates with broader experience and appeal win instead of those with narrow concerns.

"We strongly feel the system in place is working," said board member Billy Berry, who just stepped down as chairman. "In our eyes, it is not flawed."

Switching to election by districts could unseat some longtime board members.

Black candidates have won one of seven board seats in at-large elections since 2004.

Others who ran and lost lacked the community connections, political expertise and financial resources of those who succeeded, board members say in appeals.

But black community leaders say the recent success at the polls is window dressing designed to undermine the legal challenge.

In a ruling Feb. 19, federal Judge Margaret Seymour agreed at-large ballots historically weaken black strength in Lexington 3 elections.

"The white majority votes as a bloc to usually defeat the minority's preferred candidates," her decision said.

Black leaders in Lexington 3 are demanding changes that would pave the way for at least one additional black board member.

About 28 percent of the district's 13,000 residents are black, enough to assure a pair of seats on the board if balloting occurs in ways other than at-large, the ACLU says.

As for the student population, whites are 50 percent and blacks 41 percent of the current Lexington 3 enrollment of 2,045, with Hispanics largely making up the remainder, officials said.

More black clout on the board will assure better attention to enhancing the performance of black students, said funeral home operator R.O. Levy, head of the local chapter of the NAACP.

"There needs to be more attention to the needs of minority students," he said.

The performance of black students in Lexington 3 schools lags behind that of whites in virtually every measure on recent state achievement tests.

The success among black students in elementary grades on most of those tests has declined since the legal battle over board elections began, while those of white pupils sometimes increased and sometimes fell.

But black student performance is improving in middle school, state records show.

And passage of competency tests for high school graduation remained steady among blacks, while the rate for whites decreased during that period, records show.

Meanwhile, Lexington 3 is receiving recognition from various sources for improved academic success overall.

That suggests the makeup of the board has little effect on classroom performance, Crapps said.

"The makeup of the board is going to have absolutely zero impact on student test scores," she said. "If anyone thinks that, they ought to go back to school. Parents need to be more involved to assure their children more success in school."

The academic performance of black students is irrelevant, the ACLU's McDonald said.

It's important to assure black candidates get equal opportunity to win races for school board posts, he said.