Board members voice rejection of imagery in Tuesday meeting but cannot force resignation.

By Bill Spinks

The community of Midlothian was stunned on Monday when photographs surfaced of a white Midlothian ISD board member wearing blackface.

The photos, which were submitted to the Dallas Observer by an anonymous source and published on the Observer’s website Monday morning, show trustee Tami Tobey and an unidentified white woman dressed in blackface at a 2012 private Halloween party. Tobey confirmed her identity to the Observer.

The photos show Tobey and the other woman dressed as tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. Tobey is holding a tennis racquet while wearing a visor; a black, braided wig; and lip liner that exaggerates the shape and size of her mouth.

Tobey also admitted to the Observer that at a 2011 costume party, she also dressed as a black maid from the movie “The Help,” but said she did not recall wearing blackface at that time. No pictures were provided from that party.

Following a special board meeting on Tuesday morning, Tobey did not indicate she intended to resign from the board.

Trustee Andrea Walton made a motion to take immediate action to address racial ignorance in appropriate steps, to continue reflection and growth without excuses, and to improve awareness and ownership needed for all members of the board and all MISD families.

Walton added a number of stipulations, pausing at the end to regain her composure. The measure passed 4-0, with Tobey and trustee Bobby Soto abstaining. Board vice president Carl Smith left the meeting for a business engagement before the vote but weighed in beforehand.

After a public comment session that was split down the middle between both races and a lengthy executive session, Tobey expressed her remorse in public session emotionally.

“I know saying I’m sorry seems so inadequate,” Tobey told the board. “At this point that’s all I have. I love this community dearly and everybody in it. Again, regardless of my intent at the time ... I know my choice of costume was wrong. I completely regret my lack of awareness at the time this took place.”

In a discussion afterward that also often touched emotions, board members were roughly split on urging Tobey to resign, with Smith, Soto and Heather Prather condemning her for her actions, and trustees Walton and Gary Vineyard both supporting Tobey while recognizing the hurt she caused.

“We find ourselves in a difficult position,” Soto said. “Leaders lead in times of trouble in difficult moments. We lead by example. Have we all made decisions that as we reflect back, that we would have done differently? Absolutely, myself included. As I think about this district and moving forward, we each individually have to ask ourselves, can we lead and can we be trusted?”

Soto afterward said the board’s actions “are seriously causing” him to question remaining on the board.

MISD board president Matt Sanders, while repudiating Tobey’s photos vehemently, said serving on the board is a voluntary position.

“There is nobody to fire,” Sanders said, while indicating that removal of board members is possible under certain conditions in Texas law that evidently did not apply here. “This is the clarity of where we sit legally.”

In a Facebook post on Monday morning, Sanders said the district has added a cultural proficiency initiative in the past two years and also launched its first Diversity Council composed of teams of students, teachers, staff, parents and community members from each school and district department.

“While we know we still have more work to do in this area,” Sanders said, “we will continue to do so as we know becoming culturally proficient is an important journey and is always ongoing.”

Tobey, 51, who was elected to a three-year term on the board of trustees in 2017, is up for a second term in November’s city-school board joint election that was postponed from May because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to serving on the school board, Tobey is actively involved in the Midlothian High School Basketball Booster Club, Frank Seale Middle School Parent-Teacher Organization and the Midlothian Education Foundation. She also manages a State Farm Insurance office in Midlothian and owns a farmhouse home décor store, E.T. Tobey Co. LLC.

Tobey served as president and vice president of the Midlothian Community Development Corp. during her years as a board member from 2007-2016. She has been active with the American Business Women’s Association and Midlothian Chamber of Commerce.

“This situation has been incredibly disappointing,” board president Sanders said. “Again, these actions do not reflect what we, as a board or district, stand for — we believe in celebrating the power of diversity where all students and staff are treated like family.”