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Ark. Law Forcing Districts To Shift To Ward-Based School Board Races

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In an effort to pre-empt voting-rights lawyers, state officials in Arkansas are forcing dozens of communities to change how they elect school boards.

A recently passed state law requires school districts that are at least 10 percent minority to adopt ward-based election systems designed to give minority candidates a better chance of winning school board seats.

About 120 of the state's 313 school districts are affected and must have ward-based voting in place by their Sept. 20 school board elections, state officials said. If a district fails to comply, the law directs the state education department to withhold 20 percent of the district's state funds.

The superintendents of several of the affected districts last week criticized the measure as unnecessary and said complying with it has proved difficult and expensive.

"Laws should be passed to address problems; they should not be passed to address nonexistent problems," said Charles A. Vondran, the superintendent of the McCrory school district.

Mr. Vondran maintained last week that no one has ever complained about his school board's at-large election system.

The legislative backers of the law have argued, however, that it simply insures school district compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits the use of election systems that result in the underrepresentation of minorities.

Noting that more than two dozen Arkansas school districts have seen their at-large voting systems overturned in federal courts in recent years, the legislators argued that the measure would help districts and the state save legal fees.

"Anything that will help us avoid paying out taxpayers' money for unnecessary lawsuits, filed because local communities refuse to recognize the requirements of the federal law, is of benefit to the state," Roy C. (Bill) Lewellen, a Democratic state senator from east Arkansas, said last week in an interview.

"Schools are short on money, and they don't need to be spending money on legal fees," said Tommy R. Venters, the executive director of the Arkansas School Boards Association.

Boards Pick New Systems

Mr. Venters noted that no voting-rights suits have been filed against districts since the law passed last year.

But before the law passed, one Little Rock lawyer, John W. Walker, had sued 30 districts challenging their at-large elections. He had won every case but one that was still in litigation.

"What we were doing was changing the power," said Mr. Walker, who boasted that the court-ordered changes resulting from his suits had brought many new people from all racial and economic backgrounds into the political process.

Mr. Walker objects to the new law because, he said, it gives school boards too much power in determining how their successors will be picked.

Under the new law, a school board can move its district to a five-member board, all from single-member zones; a seven-member board, all from single-member zones; or a seven-member board, with five members from zones and two elected at large. Boards that choose the 5-2 combination can draw lots among their members to fill the at-large seats.

The law exempts school districts that are under court order but applies to districts determined by federal censuses to have minority populations of at least 10 percent.

Good Neighbors

Mr. Venters of the school boards' association said most districts' efforts to comply with the state law have been progressing despite the fact that several districts have had to invest a lot of time in drawing the new zones to insure minority representation.

Many district officials are less than happy with the change, however.

Barbara B. Gates, the superintendent of the Crossett public schools in southeast Arkansas, said holding board elections by zone will likely be at least three times as costly. Her district, which is 32 percent black, already had two black members on its five-member board, she noted.

Gene Gregory, the superintendent of the Arkansas City schools, said small districts should have been exempted from the law.

Dividing his 400-voter district into five, equally populated zones has made it difficult to find anyone willing to challenge another candidate, Mr. Gregory said. Within each 80-voter zone, "everybody knows everybody and is probably kin to half of them," he said.

Mr. Vondran conceded that at-large elections had not resulted in any black board members in the McCrory district, which is 13 percent black.

But he attributed the lack of black representation on his district's board to a paucity of black candidates in the past.

In the upcoming election, he noted, two black candidates, both women, are seeking one zone's seat.

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