On January 7, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari in Ferguson-Florissant School District v. Missouri Conference of NAACP.  This case involves the Ferguson-Florissant School District (“FFSD”), a St. Louis area school district created after a 1975 desegregation order required the original FFSD to annex two neighboring school districts “to achieve a meaningful desegregation” within one unified district. United States v. Missouri, 515 F.2d 1365, 1366 (8th Cir. 1975) (en banc).

This lawsuit challenged FFSD’s method of electing school board members. The suit alleged that the at-large, popular vote, system, in which people only vote once for a candidate, was racially biased against African-American candidates.  This lawsuit was originally filed in 2014, when six of the seven school board members were Caucasian, even though about four-fifths of FFSD’s student population was African-American and approximately fifty percent of its voting age population was African-American.

The plaintiffs sued FFSD for vote dilution under section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership.  To establish a Section 2 claim, the plaintiffs must show, among other things, that members of a racial minority “have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.” See 52 U.S.C. § 10301.

After a six-day bench trial, the trial court found that (1) the NAACP had proved the preconditions for a section 2 claim and (2) the totality of the circumstances indicated that the district’s African-American voters had less opportunity to elect their preferred candidate than other members of the electorate.  In July 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s findings that the at-large electoral process used by FFSD unlawfully diluted the voting power of the district’s African-American residents.  The Supreme Court’s decision to deny certiorari leaves this ruling in place.

What This Means for K-12 Schools

Because of the Supreme Court’s decision not to review the Eighth Circuit’s ruling in this case, the trial court’s finding that FFSD’s at-large election method violates the federal Voting Rights Act remains in place.  Therefore, FFSD’s election procedures will have to be changed by the April 3, 2019 election.  This decision is reminder that school districts should ensure that their election methods are non-discriminatory.  For questions about your school district’s compliance, please contact your Husch Blackwell education attorney.