Fort Worth school trustees' choice is a blow to Hispanics

FORT WORTH -- Hispanics have spent much of the past year working to strengthen their position in the Fort Worth school district.

Tensions over redrawing voting boundaries during redistricting in the fall centered on the growing Latino population. And residents came out in force last month, urging trustees to select a Hispanic trustee to fill a board vacancy, emphasizing that 60 percent of the district's students are Hispanic.

But then came a staggering blow from the blind side.

On Tuesday, the same day invitations were sent out for a reception to celebrate Fort Worth's first Hispanic school board president, Juan Rangel was suddenly ousted from the post and replaced with longtime Trustee T.A. Sims, an African-American.

Additionally, no Hispanics were selected to fill any of the officer's roles on the board for the first time in recent memory.

Some worry that the turn of events could divide African-Americans and Hispanics in the city.

"People are very upset about this," said Fernando Florez, president of a local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "I've gotten calls all morning about this. It's just disrespectful. It's disrespectful to Mr. Rangel, and it's disrespectful to the Hispanic community."

Florez, who was helping organize the May 23 reception for Rangel, said he now has to explain to many why it will be canceled.

Rangel was selected as board president in February after former leader Ray Dickerson resigned because of health reasons. With Dickerson gone, the board still had to appoint a new trustee and members chose Joe Ralph Martinez last month.

With a new board member in place, state law required that the board had to vote on its officers again.

Trustee Tobi Jackson proposed a slate of officers that included Sims as president, Christene Moss as vice president and Judy Needham as secretary. The board voted 5-4 to approve the new officers. Moss is also African-American, and Needham is Anglo.

Trustee Carlos Vasquez, who tried to keep Rangel as president, said the "coup" happened because most of the Anglos on the board did not want a Hispanic board president, so they formed an alliance with the African-American trustees. He said his relationship with Sims and Moss would not be the same.

"What they did last night was they told us 'you're not important, you don't vote and you're not as good as us,'" Vasquez said. "That's what the black community told us, and that's what the white community told us. ... And the whites are doing what they've always done and that's having the blacks and Hispanics fighting while they are sitting there laughing at us."

Tuesday night was only the second meeting for Martinez. He said he does not have any hard feelings against anyone on the board.

"I am disappointed Juan was not re-elected because I thought he was doing a good job as president," Martinez said. "But I'm hoping this does not cause a division."

Rangel did not return calls seeking comment.

Sims said no deals were made and that he makes his decisions based on what is fair and right. When he was nominated, he said, he had to vote for himself.

"I have had the desire to be president over the last 10 or 12 years," Sims said. "The window of opportunity does not remain open always and when it's open to you, you need to take it. I will not get into an altercation with Mr. Vasquez. I refuse to do that. I think very highly of him."

Trustee Norm Robbins, who is Anglo, said there was no intention on his part to slight Hispanics. Although he thought Rangel was doing a good job overall, Robbins said, he had a problem with Rangel wanting to have only one finalist interviewed for the superintendent position when Walter Dansby was selected in January.

Robbins also noted that Sims was the only sitting trustee to have actively sought the presidency before.

"It seemed only fair that he be given that opportunity," Robbins said.

Jackson said she offered up her slate based on seniority. Sims is the longest-serving trustee, having been on the board since 1983. Moss has been on the board since 1990 and Needham since 1996.

"We have the unique opportunity to be an urban district with such a wealth of experienced leaders our board," Jackson said after the vote.

Luther Perry, an African-American who has worked with youths in the district, is a member of the multiracial Black Brown and Tan Caucus. He spoke in support of Rangel at Tuesday's meeting, on behalf of the group.

After the vote, Perry said he hoped the election would not affect relations among minority groups.

"These things happen politically but ... we can't lose focus on what we need to do and that's getting our kids passing" academically, Perry said. That's why the caucus formed in the first place, he said.

Eva-Marie Ayala, (817) 390-7700

Twitter: @fwstayala