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Ferguson-Florissant school board appealing changes in election process

Patrick Henry Elementary School in St. Louis.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

One day before filing for the spring election begins, the Ferguson-Florissant school board announced Monday that it will appeal a federal judge’s ruling changing how board members in the district are elected.

U.S. District Judge Rodney Sippel last month ordered that members of the board of the north St. Louis County district should be elected with cumulative voting, in an effort to achieve racial balance. He said that the current system of electing all board members at large “is legally unacceptable.”

Under Sippel’s order, which came two years after the lawsuit was filed, voters may cast as many votes as there are seats up for election. Those votes may all be cast for the same candidate or may be spread around as the voter sees fit.

The ruling came in a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the NAACP and others that claimed that the historic racial makeup of the district has not reflected the makeup of voting population in Ferguson-Florissant.

Friday night, the school board met and decided to appeal Sippel’s ruling. In a statement released Monday, the current president of the board, Donna Thurman, noted that “in the time since the lawsuit was filed, district voters have elected two additional African-American board members. We are confident the present process is lawful and provides an equal opportunity for all candidates.”

Thurman is African-American as are Courtney Graves and Connie Harge. The terms of Thurman, Robert Chabot and Keith Brown expire in April.

District attorney Cindy Ormsby said the appeal, to be filed with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, will show that Sippel’s order is not needed.

“Plaintiffs' explanation that two of the three African-Americans board members were elected due to ‘special circumstances’ rather than their qualifications and hard work is, frankly, insulting,” Ormsby said in a statement. “In addition, the district believes that cumulative voting is inferior to the current electoral system. ... According to the judge’s demographic findings, African-American representation is proportionate to the number of African-American voters in the district. In most cases, that sort of proportionality is a goal plaintiffs seek through the remedy. In this instance, it is a remedy without a problem.”

After hearing about the planned appeal, Julie Ebenstein of the ACLU criticized the district for opposing Sippel's order.

“The time and resources the school board continues to devote to defending its racially discriminatory election system, instead of educating its children, is shameful," she said in a statement.

Added Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri:

"At this time, the school board is spending more time enriching its attorneys than ensuring the best education for its students.

“Even after a multi-day trial with expert testimony, the school district continues to pretend the complex, well-documented set of factors contributing to lessening the power of African-American voters doesn’t exist."

Along with the cumulative voting plan, Sippel ordered Ferguson-Florissant to come up with a voter education program that would explain the new balloting process.

He said that cumulative voting, which had been proposed by the plaintiffs in the suit, would correct the racial imbalance on the board when used with staggered terms and off-cycle elections.

The district had opposed cumulative voting from the start, saying that the long-standing at-large election process would result in fair representation on the board.

Other remedies suggested by the plaintiffs included dividing the district into seven geographical areas, with one board member coming from each district, or having two at-large members and five members representing different geographical areas. But cumulative voting was their first choice.

“We believe that cumulative voting is the one that will really both be able to correct the discrimination there and be a very accessible, user-friendly so to speak system,” Ebenstein said as the judge was weighing various options.

“It has a few benefits, like it can grow if the population does shift or change. It gives voters a little more flexibility to form coalitions, whether they prefer candidates by region or whatever other factor.”

In an email, Ormsby said the timing of the decision by the board to appeal had nothing to do with the fact that filing for the election begins on Tuesday. She said Sippel had asked that the appeal come before the candidate filing, if possible, but the actual deadline to file is Dec. 22.

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

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