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Trial Begins in Case Alleging Ferguson School Elections Are Biased Against Blacks

A federal trial begins today in a lawsuit filed against the Ferguson-Florissant school district in Missouri by the American Civil Liberties Union, alleging that the process for electing school board members locks African-Americans out of the voting process. 

The lawsuit was filed in December 2014, a few months after the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown sparked widespread protests about police and policing practices, particularly in African-American communities.

The ACLU, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Missouri Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and three African-American residents, argues that the electoral process violates Section II of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  The trial, before U.S. District Judge Rodney Sippel, is expected to last a week.

School board trustees in Ferguson-Florissant are chosen on an at-large basis, a process that dilutes the African-American vote and makes it difficult for African-American candidates to be elected, the ACLU argues. The civil liberties group says that a system based on wards or sub-districts would ensure fairer representation on the board, according to the Associated Press.

African-American students make up 77 percent of the school district's enrollment. The district's 12,000 students are drawn from parts of 11 municipalities in north St. Louis County. Despite large numbers of African-American students in the district, the school board has not reflected the makeup of the student body, the ACLU contends. 

(Although the population of the 11 municipalities is nearly evenly divided between blacks and whites, many white students attend private or parochial schools. African-Americans also make up a minority of the voting age population, according to the lawsuit.)

There are currently two African-American trustees on the seven-member school board; there was only one when the ACLU filed the lawsuit a little over a year ago.

In a statement to the Associated Press, the school district rejected the argument that the Ferguson-Florissant school election process violated the Voting Rights Act. The district said that the board selection process was similar to that of other districts in the state.   

Board attorney Cindy Ormsby told the AP that the district had a long history of African-American representation on the school board and that elections by wards or districts would be a setback for black candidates, the news agency reported.

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