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Judge rules Ferguson school elections unfair to black voters

A federal judge on Monday ordered that the Ferguson-Florissant School District in suburban St. Louis change its election process, after finding that the school system illegally undercuts the political power of black residents in the selection of school board members.

The ruling, which bars the district from holding elections until it makes changes to its election process, comes after the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a lawsuit in December 2014 on behalf of three African-American residents and the Missouri chapter of the NAACP. The lawsuit claimed that the district’s practice of voting for school members at large instead of by subdistricts has diluted African-American voting strength.

U.S. District Judge Rodney Sippel agreed that the current system, which is enshrined in Missouri state law, has diminished African-American representation on the school board and is in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

The decision by Sippel comes after a six-day bench trial in January and  two years after Ferguson, a predominantly African-American suburb of St. Louis, drew global attention following the shooting death of Michael Brown, an African-American teen who was fatally shot after a struggle with a white Ferguson police officer.

Roughly 80% of the district’s student body of 11,000 are African-American, but only three of the district’s seven school board members are black. Voting-age white residents outnumber voting-age black residents in the district.  (At the time the lawsuit was filed, two of the seven school board members were black.)

The ACLU wants the district to switch to a system which would allow voters to cast their ballots for an individual school board member who resides in their neighborhood, instead of casting votes district-wide.

The ACLU did not claim in its lawsuit that that the district intentionally discriminated against black residents, but Sippel found in his ruling that “the at-large and off-cycle election features, as well as, to some extent, the staggered terms of Board members,” had led to a dilution of the black vote.

“Rather, it is my finding that the cumulative effects of historical discrimination, current political practices, and the socioeconomic conditions present in the District impact the ability of African Americans in (the district) to participate equally in Board elections,” Sippel wrote in his ruling. “The ongoing effects of racial discrimination that have long plagued the region, and the District in particular, have affected the ability of African Americans to participate equally in the political process.”

The next school board election will not be held until April, and Sippel has called a hearing for Friday to discuss remedies with the district and the plaintiffs.

Cindy Ormbsy, an attorney for the district, said that district officials were still weighing whether to file an appeal.

“The District continues to believe that the current at-large electoral system is best for African American representation,” Ormsby said in a statement.

The district was created by a 1975 federal desegregation order intended to remedy the effects of discrimination against African-American students.

“The ruling is an important step forward in addressing the long history of governmental policies in Missouri that have worked to disfavor communities of color in our elections, and our schools, housing, and employment,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri.

The Justice Department, which launched a civil rights investigation in Ferguson following the unrest after the Brown shooting, concluded that that the Ferguson Police Department engaged in a broad pattern of racially-biased enforcement that rippled into the city’s court system.

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