The Missouri State Conference of the NAACP filed a lawsuit against the Ferguson-Florissant School District this past December in a quest to discontinue the at-large elections of its seven member board and instead divide the school district into seven election districts from which each board member will be elected.
Changing the method of election in this way is sure to dramatically change the composition of the board in favor of the African-American families in the district. Why? As it turns out, the Ferguson-Florissant School District’s demographics and political environment is indeed a microcosm of the sad state of race relations we saw explode on national television just months ago in Ferguson, MO.
A quick look at the numbers sharpen the view. The NAACP’s complaint gives the stats: the school district’s voting-aged population is 49% White, and 47% Black. Blacks however, comprise a whooping 77% of the student population, only 13% are White. This paints a picture. White voters determine the makeup of the council (the NAACP confirms clear racial bloc voting), which features six White members and one Black- even though the majority of the school population is Black.
At least some of this racial imbalance comes from the fact that most of the White children living in the school district (68%) do not attend public schools. All of this is occurring against the backdrop of high segregation and poverty in the school district. It appears that White families are retreating from the public schools but still hold much of the power in school district elections.
The preliminary requirements of a section 2 vote dilution case appear to be satisfied if the NAACP’s complaint is accurate. They confirm that Black voters are concentrated enough to have a district(s) in which they would be the voting majority and that both Blacks and Whites vote as separate blocks, rarely if ever agreeing on the same candidates.
The story does not end here however as the NAACP and its fellow plaintiffs must convince the court that Black voters in the district are generally disenfranchised due to race by providing additional evidence of racial animus or institutionalized discrimination in the district. The NAACP’s complaint does list these “totality of circumstances” for the court and describe a state of affairs that can be seen all too often in school districts around the country.
Changing the method of electing school board candidates will only go so far to resolving the deeper issue of re-segregated, poverty-stricken schools, one which courts have little tools to solve.