- Associated Press - Friday, January 6, 2017

ST. LOUIS (AP) - A school district that includes students from Ferguson, Missouri, will continue its long-held method of electing board members at large in April, despite a lawsuit claiming the process is racially biased.

The lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union filed in 2014 on behalf of the Missouri NAACP seeks a process for the Ferguson-Florissant School District known as cumulative voting. It would allow people to vote multiple times for a single candidate, depending on how many seats are up for grabs.

U.S. District Judge Rodney Sippel ruled in favor of the NAACP in August. But he decided in December to allow the district to hold off on cumulative voting while it appeals his ruling. A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday refused to overturn that decision.

Cindy Ormsby, attorney for the school district, said Friday that the April school board election will remain an at-large one, with the court case still unresolved.

“This was absolutely the best thing to do, rather than seesaw back and forth between two election models,” Ormsby said.

ACLU of Missouri attorney Tony Rothert called the appeals court ruling disappointing but said it will “have no impact on the ultimate resolution of the case.”

“The court’s decision that the election system violates the Voting Rights Act still stands,” Rothert said in a statement. “It is troubling that the school board is more interested in preserving an electoral system that the court found dilutes the votes of African-Americans than in giving black voters an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, which underscores the importance of electing a responsive school board.”

The lawsuit was filed soon after the police shooting death of Michael Brown in August 2014 in Ferguson. The unrest that followed the unarmed, black 18-year-old’s shooting by a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb brought national attention to concerns of racial bias in the community and elsewhere in the area.

The lawsuit alleged that the district’s practice of selecting board members at large has made it more difficult for black candidates to win election.

The district serves about 11,200 students from 11 municipalities, including part of Ferguson. It is about evenly split between whites and blacks, but nearly 80 percent of the students are black, as many white parents send their children to private and parochial schools.

In an at-large election, voters get as many votes as there are vacancies to fill. But the voter can cast no more than one vote for each candidate. In the cumulative process, the voter also gets the same number of votes as vacancies, but can cast all of them for a single candidate if he or she chooses.

Drew Penrose, legal director for the nonprofit FairVote, said 58 jurisdictions around the country now use cumulative voting because of lawsuits alleging Voting Rights Act violations. He said minority representation has increased in those jurisdictions.

When the Missouri lawsuit was filed, just one of the seven Ferguson-Florissant board members was black. In subsequent elections, two more black members have been added, and Ormsby said it’s possible and perhaps likely that four of the seven school board members will be African-American after the April vote.

“In my mind that pretty much makes the NAACP’s lawsuit moot,” she said.

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