Bud Kennedy

In Arlington, a step backward, and maybe out of legal bounds

Ten-year Arlington school Trustee Gloria Peña drew more than 9,000 votes last weekend.

That’s enough to win a school board election everywhere in North Texas and almost everywhere in Texas — except Arlington.

Now that Grand Prairie and Irving have switched to single-member districts to prevent Anglo voters from blocking minority voters’ choices, Arlington stands out as the largest area school system with a big, expensive districtwide board election.

That works as long as Arlington can prove that minority voters’ choices are not systematically excluded.

But when election results leave the board with no Hispanic trustee in a district where one-third of adults and even more children are Hispanic, the legal defense for at-large elections grows tougher.

Peña declined to call for change last week, maybe in part because single-member districts would also shake up the geography of a board dominated by civic leaders from west and southwest Arlington.

But she was definitely stung by something she heard during the campaign.

A supporter of her opponent, popular retired teacher Polly Walton, told Peña abruptly, “You’re not even Hispanic.”

I saw similar denials on social media.

Peña said her mother, the late Evangelina (Trejo) Ansara Torres, would be “very surprised.”

(Peña grew up in El Paso. As with Texas first lady Cecilia Abbott, Peña’s father was not Hispanic.)

The Arlington trustee said sadly that she’ll miss the children: “When I would go to schools and talk to children, they would be so happy.”

Walton, an easy winner with 11,532 votes (56 percent), said she considered challenging several trustees but chose Peña because “I felt like I’d have a better chance against her than against one of the guys.”

Voters ousted Peña and incumbent Peter Baron in an “emotional reaction” to recent personnel disputes, Walton said.

If electing minority trustees is important, Walton said, “We’ve got a big Asian population, too. It’s hard to say one group’s entitled but another is not.”

At Arlington’s LULAC Council 4953, council President Luis C. Castillo sees mixed lessons.

“It’s an outdated election system,” he said, arguing for at least two Hispanic single-member districts of the nine.

“I’ve never been happy with this, or with having most of the board living west of Cooper Street,” he said. “But I don’t have as much of a problem with the board as what they do.”

For example, recent building namings didn’t include even one or two for Hispanics, he said.

Supporters of at-large elections always say they promote unity.

I don’t call this unity.

Bud Kennedy’s column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 817-390-7538

Twitter: @BudKennedy

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