Civil Rights Groups Seek Overhaul of Worcester School Committee Elections

Civil rights groups say that Black and Latino populations aren’t fairly represented on the School Committee of Massachusetts’ second largest city.

(Pixabay image via Courthouse News)

WORCESTER, Mass. (CN) — Civil rights groups in New England’s second largest city have raised a Voting Rights Act challenge against the city’s process for electing school district leadership, alleging that its winner-take-all apprach allows white voters to control a public school system where nonwhite students are the majority.

Worcester uses an at-large system to elect its School Committee, which governs the 25,000-student Worcester Public Schools system. That system, according to a complaint filed Monday by the Worcester brach of the NAACP, several voters and nonprofit Worcester Interfaith, gives the city’s slim white majority the ability to choose every committee member.

“Voting patterns show demonstrable racial polarization, with a predominantly white majority that generally votes for the same candidates, effectively diluting and canceling out the votes of Hispanic/Latino/a and Black residents,” the complaint states. “This is directly counter to the fundamental principle of equal voting opportunity, and a violation of federal law.”

The complaint cites the committee’s current all-white composition and the fact that only one candidate of color has won any of 36 open seats over the last six election cycles, stretching back to 2009. A white majority in Worcester’s voting population — about 56% — pushes Black and Latino voters’ priorities to the sidelines even as their children make up around 60% of students in the schools, the complaint said. When counting other nonwhite students, that figure exceeds 70%.

Those priorities, according to the complaint, include better support for English learners and fairer discipline for Black and Latino children who are punished more frequently and harshly than their white classmates.

Worcester’s failure to represent Black and Latino voters, the plaintiffs argued, violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits the application of “any standard, practice or procedure” to any individual that is not applied to other voters. They cited a 1986 case, Thornburg v. Gingles, in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that a redistricting plan passed by the North Carolina General Assembly violated the act by dividing “politically cohesive groups of black voters” into districts where they would consistently be beaten out by white voters.

Black and Latino votes are similarly diluted in Worcester, plaintiffs’ attorney Rebecca Lecaroz argued. One potential solution, she said, would be the drawing of districts such that voters of color could consistently elect at least one committee member.

“It is possible to draw a district which is majority minority, which is one of the factors that we’re looking at here,” Lecaroz said. “That would give the people of color, and communities of color in Worcester an opportunity to have their votes count equally.”

Such a setup could include a district similar to the City Council’s existing 4th district, which extends from the center of the city to its southern boundary. Five council members in the city are elected by districts but are outnumbered by six at-large councilors.

“We have serious disparities in the Worcester Public Schools impacting our students of color who make up 70% of the schools’ population. These disparities are directly linked to policies that fall under the purview of our all-white School Committee, which is not accountable to communities of color. The current all at-large School Committee structure makes it impossible to have fair representation and policies and infrastructure needed for our students to thrive,” Isabel Gonzalez-Webster, executive director of Worcester Interfaith, said in a press release.

“We need to change Worcester’s electoral system in order to have true representative democracy and to deliver equal educational opportunity to every Worcester Public School student,” she added.

The City of Worcester’s solicitor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday evening.

Demographic shifts that brought no changes in representation have prompted similar suits in cities around the country in recent years. A 2017 decision, also in the District of Massachusetts, required the state’s fourth-largest city, Lowell, to abandon its own at-large system for electing its School Committee and City Council. That decision, Lecaroz said, helped embolden the Worcester plaintiffs.

Massachusetts is not the only state facing pushes to reform racially-tilted municipal elections. In 2014, a federal judge cited Gingles when he found that the city of Yakima, Washington’s at-large system for electing city council members unfairly excluded the city’s large Latino population from representation. Yakima switched to a ward system for electing its council the next year and elected the first two Latino council members in its history. A raft of other Eastern Washington cities followed in Yakima’s wake.

The state later passed its own Voting Rights Act, which included provisions to encourage district-based elections.

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