Judge: Ferguson-Florissant School District elections biased

AP News
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Posted: Aug 22, 2016 4:01 PM

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A federal judge ruled Monday that the process of electing school board members for a district that includes Ferguson, Missouri, is biased against black voters and must be revised before another election will be allowed.

U.S. District Judge Rodney Sippel's ruling in St. Louis comes seven months after he presided over the trial in a lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union filed on behalf of the Missouri NAACP and three residents of the Ferguson-Florissant School District.

The lawsuit, filed soon after the August 2014 police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, alleged that the district's practice of selecting board members at large rather than by ward or sub-district makes it more difficult for black candidates to win and violates the Voting Rights Act.

Sippel agreed.

"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," he wrote in his ruling.

ACLU attorney Tony Rothert said in a statement that the ruling "is about African-American communities being able to hold their government accountable."

"Today's decision will lead to future school boards that are responsive to the needs of the community," Rothert said.

School district attorney Cindy Ormsby said the district is considering options, including whether to appeal and called the ruling disappointing.

Ormsby noted that three of the seven current board members are black, a percentage that is proportional to the racial breakdown of registered voters in the district. At the time the lawsuit was filed, the board had just one black member.

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

Although the district is split about evenly between black and white residents, a higher percentage of whites are registered to vote. Many white parents in the district send their children to private or parochial schools, leaving black students to make up nearly four-fifths of Ferguson-Florissant's 12,000 students.

The lawsuit was filed in December 2014, four months after Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, was fatally shot during a confrontation with Darren Wilson, a white police officer, on a Ferguson street. A St. Louis County grand jury and the U.S. Department of Justice ultimately cleared Wilson, who resigned in November 2014.

Brown's death led to months of protests that grew violent at times and was a catalyst for the national Black Lives Matter movement and debate over police treatment of minorities. The shooting also prompted a federal investigation into Ferguson's police department and municipal court. The Justice Department and the city, which is a suburb of St. Louis, reached an agreement earlier this year on a plan to reduce racial bias.

The Justice Department's initial study, released in March 2015, led to the resignations of Ferguson's city manager, police chief and municipal judge, and resulted in several police and court reforms.