The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Thursday is a St. Louis federal court in which it claims the Florissant-Ferguson School District is practicing racially discriminatory system in its election process. The suit was filed on behalf of the Missouri chapter of the NAACP and representatives of both groups announced it at a press conference Thursday morning. They stated at the conference that the school district, combined between the two cities, is in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
The basis of the lawsuit is that the district uses at-large voting when electing school board members, rather than having sub-district voting. The allegation is that since African-Americans constitute a minority of the voting-age people in the district, they aren’t getting a fair shot at placing individuals on the board to represent their interests. After the shooting death of Michael Brown in August, it became nationally known that Ferguson, despite having a population that is 67% black, had a mostly white school board and police department. Currently, over 70% of the children attending the schools in the district are black.
MSNBC’s Zachary Roth highlighted how the ACLU’s lawsuit has a good chance of being successful due to past lawsuits of a similar nature.
In August, a federal court found that the at-large voting system used by Yakima, Washington violates the Voting Rights Act by making it all but impossible for Hispanics, who make up around a third of the city’s population, to elect their chosen representatives to the city council. That lawsuit, too, was brought by the ACLU. Fayette County, Georgia’s at-large system also was struck down by a federal court under the VRA earlier this year, leading to the election of the first black woman to the county commission. Civil rights groups last month sued the city of Pasadena, Texas, after it moved to an at-large system.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act bars not just intentional racial discrimination in voting, but also actions that have the effect of discriminating. Courts have generally required that plaintiffs show, at the least, that the action hurt minorities because it exacerbated an existing history of discrimination.
That history of discrimination is present in this case, the lawsuit alleges. The school district was created by a 1975 desegregation order intended to remedy the effects of discrimination against African-American students.
“The Ferguson-Florissant School District serves an area whose history is fraught with discrimination against African-American citizens,” the lawsuit says. “The borders of the municipalities were initially drawn along racial lines, established to avoid increasing African American voting strength, and kept in force by racial housing covenants.”
Other than the known issue of the racial breakdown of the district’s school board, another issue that helped exacerbate the racial tension was the resignation of the school board’s first black superintendent. It had been widely believed by many in the community that Dr. Art McCoy’s resignation, after a lengthy leave of absence, was forced earlier this year and was racially motivated.
The feeling here is that if the district goes to single-member districts for voting, it will do quite a bit to fix much of the racial disparity the community feels exists in the governmental systems currently in place. If the lawsuit is successful, the school board should more accurately reflect the overall community while having members from all over the entire district rather than potentially from one or two focused areas.
Justin Baragona is the Managing Editor at Politicus Sports as well as Senior Editor at PoliticusUSA. He was a political writer for 411Mania.com before joining PoliticusUSA. Politically, Justin considers himself a liberal but also a realist and pragmatist. Currently, Justin lives in St. Louis, MO and is married. Besides writing, he also runs his own business after spending a number of years in the corporate world. You can follow Justin on Twitter either with his personal handle (@justinbaragona) or the Sports site’s (@PoliticusSports).