Fayette school board and county commission vote to settle district voting lawsuit

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Updated story – Jan. 15: Thursday night, the Fayette County Board of Commissioners approved the settlement plan just before midnight at the end of the Jan. 14 regular meeting. The vote was 3-2, with Chairman Charles Oddo along with commissioners David Barlow and Charles Rousseau voting in favor. Commissioners Steve Brown and Randy Ognio voted against the plan.

A previous motion to reject the settlement proposal failed along the same voting lines.

The action came after a lengthy executive session and less than ten minutes before midnight. More than a dozen people were still in the audience at that late hour, after a large crowd attended the meeting, many no doubt to see what if any action would be taken on this issue.

A separate vote was taken to move forward with the necessary legislative action to approve the new district maps, and that vote was also approved 3-2.

The bulk of the resolution was then read into the record and some commissioners made their own statements before adjournment.

Now the issue moves to the General Assembly, where officials hope the necessary local legislation can move through both houses in time to make everything official before qualifying, which begins March 7.

-Reporting by Monroe Roark

Original story: The Fayette County Board of Education on Tuesday night in what is arguably the most important vote taken in recent memory voted unanimously to settle the district voting lawsuit brought by the NAACP. It came with a new district map that has four districts and one at-large seat.

The Fayette County Commission will presumably take up the issue at its Jan. 14 meeting.

The motion came in two parts. The first was to approve the settlement agreement that has been in the works since October by way of the required mediation talks between the parties as ordered by federal Judge Timothy Batten, according to board member Barry Marchman in a statement prior to the vote. Hence, Marchman’s comment that there was no decision being made at the meeting since the decision had been made in October and the board on Jan. 12 was voting to approve the settlement agreement. 

Though the vote was 5-0, Chairman Marion Key sat silent for the better part of a minute after the other board members had voted. She then affirmed her vote that made it unanimous.

The second motion  was to approve the redistricting plan that provides for four district elections and one at-large election. Fayette is currently made up of five voting districts.

If approved by commissioners, the change would mean that Fayette County voters would get a vote in two of the five races for school board and county commission seats.

The new district map, if approved by commissioners Thursday, will re-draw Fayette’s voting districts and result in four districts rather than the current five districts.

In terms of composition, the new District 4 would be made up of 45.95 percent black residents and with 47 percent black registered voters and 50.9 percent black and all other minorities combined, according to the settlement document.

A statement released by the school system on Jan. 13 on what was called a compromise settlement said the settlement will have a minimum impact in the way school board members are elected and it will end the financial burden the litigation has caused. The settlement allows for the continued use of some at-large elections now and in the future. The 2016 election will use a four-district, one at-large plan.

“After many hours of consideration and detailed discussions with its counsel, the board concluded that this compromise settlement is in the best interest of the school system and the public. The settlement completely eliminates the contorted and gerrymandered election district that had been imposed by the federal court in its previous order. It allow for the continuation of some at-large seats, and eliminates the school district’s potential exposure to payment of over $1 million of attorney’s fees to the plaintiffs’ lawyer if the case were litigated further, which would have led to more appeals. The board felt a heavy responsibility to its students, and to the county’s taxpayers, to ensure that public funds are being used to secure the best possible education for Fayette County’s students.” 

School board Chairman Marion Key made a statement prior to the Tuesday vote.

“Fayette County has for many years been unique among metro Atlanta counties. What has made us unique is our school system, our land use plan and our at-large voting. The at-large voting practice has resulted in all of our local elected officials being accountable to all citizens. As a board, we have done our due diligence in the defense of our school system and our county,” Key said. “I do not believe that Fayette County boards of education, past or present, have violated any federal laws. But I do believe we could have solved our differences within the county rather than in the courts. Even though we were not allowed to have our day in court, we did engage in a mediation process that resulted in this agreement. Given the time and effort that has gone into this process, I am optimistic that we can work together to provide the best possible education for our students and to contribute positively to the quality of life of our community.”