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District's At-Large School Board Elections Violate Voting Rights Act, Court Rules

A federal appeals court has ruled that the at-large voting system for the school board covering Ferguson, Mo., where the police shooting of an African-American man sparked weeks of racial unrest in 2014, violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The seven-member board of the Ferguson-Florissant school district, which serves all or part of 11 municipalities in suburban St. Louis, is elected at large. The district's student population of 11,200 students is about 80 percent black and 20 percent white.

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The school board was all white until 2014, the same year that Michael Brown was shot and killed in an altercation with a white police officer in Ferguson, sparking widespread street protests that focused on police and city policies. (A state grand jury declined to indict the officer who shot Brown and the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that the officer had acted in self-defense.)

Education Week's Denisa R. Superville visited Ferguson one year after the Brown incident and last year examined efforts to bring greater racial diversity to school boards.

There was one African-American member of the Ferguson-Florissant board in 2014 before the state chapter of the NAACP, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the district alleging that black voters' votes were being diluted by the at-large voting system in violation of section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. There are now three black members on the board.

Despite that, a federal district court ruled in 2016 that the plaintiffs had proved the preconditions for a section 2 vote-dilution claim and that the totality of the circumstances indicated that the district's black voters had less opportunity to elect their preferred candidates than other members of the electorate.

In a July 3 decision in Missouri State Conference of the NAACP v. Ferguson-Florissant School District, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, unanimously affirmed the district court.

The appeals court rejected arguments from the school district that a racial minority group cannot win a section 2 claim because African-Americans make up a bare majority of the voting-age population in the school district, about 50.3 percent based on the Census Bureau's 2011-13 American Community Survey.

"Minority voters do not lose VRA protection simply because they represent a bare numerical majority within the district," the appeals court said.

The appeals court also rejected the school district's arguments that more weight should be given to the fact that as of 2016, there were three African-Americans on the board, which provided representation close to the proportion of the black population in the district.

"Simply put, proportionality alone does not indicate that a racial minority has achieved the ability to effectively participate in the political process," the appellate court said.

The appeals court said the district judge was not in error to consider the election of an African-American to the board in 2015, after the Michael Brown incident, to be a "special circumstance" under the U.S. Supreme Court's tests for applying the VRA. That meant the victory by the black candidate that year did not detract from a conclusion that there was white bloc voting that enabled the bloc to usually defeat the preferred candidate of minority voters.

The 8th Circuit's decision does not address how to remedy the section 2 violation. The plaintiffs have suggested a number of options, including a cumulative voting system, seven single-member voting districts, or a combination of five single-member districts and two at-large districts. The district court is already considering the possible remedies.

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