From a full house to a just a few of the faithful, after 4-and-a-half hours, the public finally got to speak at the Beaumont Independent School District Board meeting.
And most were not happy that the citizens comment section of the meeting had been moved to the end of the meeting, past 11:30 Thursday night.
Beaumont City Councilman Mike Getz told board trustees, "This is deliberate on your part, you're not respecting the people who pay their tax dollars to this school district to be able to run."
When questioned about the move, Board President Woodrow Reece said, "Well I think the public comment is appropriate at this moment, it may change again, but right now the way it's so disruptive before, we're just trying a different avenue."
There was also anger towards Trustee Gwen Ambres. Ambres complained about Jefferson County registrar Shane Howard, sending the district a letter questioning the legality of the November 5th election ordered by the board.
However no one had notified Howard he would be discussed at the meeting, so he wasn't there.
Howard did show up later, but was not allowed to speak. This angered Getz, who called Reece a coward.
Reece responded by challenging Getz, saying, "Come up here and say it, junior."
There was also a confrontation outside the board meeting, but officers quickly settled it.
There were six BISD police officers at the meeting Thursday.
This weekend, Howard sent a letter to the citizens of Jefferson County, explaining his side of the situation.
Here is that letter Howard, who is the county tax assessor-collector and voter registrar, wrote:
"An open letter to the citizens of Jefferson County,
On September 13, I wrote a letter to the Beaumont Independent School District. It the
letter I outlined the potential cost for completing the redistricting work they failed to
handle in a timely manner and in which their demographer refused to provide sufficient
information by which to interpret the District's intentions for redistricting. My office had
alerted the District to this a month or so earlier and we were requested to go ahead and
finish the work on their behalf. There is no conflict in this specific matter and we have
finalized the redistricting for BISD.
In the second half of my letter, I requested information on another matter; that being the
trustee election called for in November. I stated that, on its face, this election is not
lawful and I required some statutory or court determination that it was indeed lawful in
order to allow my office to participate in their election. The Secretary of State and our
District Attorney's office (which serves as our general counsel), had already advised our
County Clerk to not participate in administering the election on behalf of BISD, largely
based on the lack of BISD's authority to call for a November election. The Texas
Education Code is clear as to when and how school district elections should be
conducted. And no one has disagreed with the assertion that any of the conditions
necessary to a lawful election actually exist. No one, including the District. Yet, BISD,
despite multiple court decisions affirming the applicability of the law, continues on its
same path. I stated in my letter that without sufficient reference to a statute or court
order making an exception to the law, that I would not aid and abet tyrannical or
undemocratic acts by a political entity. Strong words? Yes. Inflammatory? Only to those
who do not understand the situation or those too blinded by institutional arrogance to
respect the statutory roles of other entities and understand how their actions affect OUR
integrity and duties.
This past Thursday, BISD held a board meeting at which my letter was discussed. I was
not invited to the meeting. I only became aware that certain trustees and the District's
attorney were lambasting my "inappropriate involvement" and "inflammatory" language
from the dais after a late night reading of social media and text messages. Naturally, I
threw on a suit and went to the meeting. The Board decided to adjourn without asking
me to address them. Needless to say, I was surprised given the angst shown earlier at a
meeting to which I was not invited. Additionally, I assumed that, just like other entities
routinely do, BISD would find value in hearing the thoughts of one of only two elections
professionals in the county after I had asserted my unwillingness to participate in
unlawful elections. Finally, I find it interesting that no one actually disagreed with
anything in my letter. They only took umbrage over their assumed tone of the letter and
demonstrated their lack of understanding as to what the voter registrar does.
After the meeting, I discussed matters with the BISD attorney and Trustee Gwen
Ambres, among others. Board president Woodrow Reese assured me, as did others,
that there had been a miscommunication within BISD in regards to inviting me to the
meeting. I accept their explanation and am certain that this will not happen in the future.
No explanation was given as to why I wasn't asked to address the Board after making
the effort to join them so late in the night and on such a difficult subject. One thing
became very clear to me in my discussion with trustees and others - there is a
fundamental misunderstanding of how elections work, the role some of us play in the
big picture, and the fact that BISD is just one of more than two dozen political entities in
Jefferson County with no more or less importance than the smallest water conservation
Indeed, every single one of these entities carry equal weight and are normally governed
by unpaid volunteer trustees or councils, usually broken down into neighborhood level
districts - my office, among others, are tasked within the law as the professionals -
protectors and custodians of various things on behalf of the entire citizenry and as a
resource to help the entities. Together, the entities and offices like mine work together
as partners to ensure good governance. I take great pride in that collaboration. Many of
the entities avail themselves to have us explain and educate on various subject areas of
mutual concern. If we depart from the law for any entity, it affects the whole. It also
affects the confidence of the people as a whole, not just those whom live in BISD but
the entirety of our community. So when a trustee says I should "stay in my lane" or that
the District does not "report to J. Shane Howard," I don't disagree. She's correct.
However, one of my "lanes" is voter registration and an entity cannot effectively conduct
elections without using my office. Period. I am involved because my office is integral to
the acts of the District as relates to elections among a few other things. And as such, my
duty is to ensure that when we collaborate with an entity, we do not unwittingly
participate in an unlawful act. My letter simply asked BISD for a statutory reference or
court order demonstrating that this November election is indeed lawful.
Clearly, there is a lawsuit pending in Judge Floyd's court to determine whether there will
be an exception to the law for BISD. If he decides to grant it, then we will assist BISD in
its election. It is very simple. But to be clear: to date, no one has asserted that the
election is lawful; the closest claim to such are the arguments made in court to plead for
PERMISSION to conduct an election in November. That's it and it is a distinction with a
difference. As an election professional tasked with certain statutory duties, I do not have
the luxury or obligation to wait for a court decision when every party tacitly
acknowledges what I asserted in my letter. I stated a fact and no one has disagreed,
even those most agitated over my letter. We are not a party to the lawsuit nor do I have
a preference for the outcome. But I cannot help but note that, after multiple state
appeals court decisions and a DC Circuit Court ruling affirming that BISD is not a
"special case" and is subject to the law like everyone else, nothing has changed. BISD
remains on the same path regardless. As a result, I cannot be realistically confident that
yet another ruling would be respected. Some object to the strength of my words in the
letter. I can only state things as they are; words have meaning and actions have
definition. Sometimes clarity and catharsis helps us see things as they are, not as we
have convinced ourselves we would like them to be. BISD needed to understand that,
absent some assurance of legality, they will be on their own. Likewise, the public
deserves to understand what has become a cluttered and complex issue in the simplest
of terms, even as stark as they may be. All I asked for in my letter was proof that this
election is lawful. Despite strong words in the absence of my presence, no assurance
has been provided. Perhaps Judge Floyd decides to grant the district an exception. If
so, we will be ready to help the election. If not..."