Citing Imbalance, Judge Stops School Board Election in Pa.

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As voters across the country went to the polls last week, residents of the Connellsville Area School District in southwest Pennsylvania who planned to vote in the local school board election had to stay home.

U.S. District Judge Donald J. Lee of Pittsburgh late last month canceled the election for five board seats. Judge Lee stopped the election as part of a ruling in a 1998 lawsuit claiming that the populations of the three regions from which the board's nine members were elected were unbalanced and violated the one-person, one-vote federal standard for elections.

The number of voters in each of the three board regions ranges from 16,137, to 1,969, to 8,610. The seven plaintiffs in the case asked the judge to cancel last week's election if the district failed to reapportion the voting districts by Election Day.

Calling the disparities "intolerably large," Judge Lee in the Oct. 27 ruling granted the plaintiffs' request to cancel the election and also nullified the primary for the 6,250-student Connellsville district, which covers 226 square miles of mostly rural, mountainous terrain.

'A Total Mess'

School officials had submitted three reapportionment plans since August 1998 to a Fayette County court. It rejected all three because they relied on conflicting population estimates or dated sources.

Local school officials are wondering what will happen Dec. 6, when the terms of the five members who were vying for re- election are set to expire.

"The school district will shut down if the judge doesn't do something," Kevin Lape, an incumbent who was running unopposed for a third term on the board, said last week. "It's a total mess."

Superintendent Gerald Browell said he was awaiting an order from the judge to have representatives from both sides meet to discuss a way out. He, too, expressed concern about how the district would run if the terms of the five members expired before any resolution.

But Marvin D. Snyder Jr., the lawyer for the plaintiffs, said concerns about shutting down the school system were premature. He said the school board would have options to avert a crisis, such as the authority to fill vacancies. Besides, he added, the courts could extend the terms of the current board.

The threat of a district shutdown is "a scare tactic," Mr. Snyder contended.

As for possible outcomes, Mr. Snyder said an at-large election would be an acceptable short- term solution for his plaintiffs, who come from the most populous voting district. Eventually, he wants regions to have an even distribution of voters.

Mr. Lape, who represents a sparsely populated area, said at-large elections would leave outlying areas underrepresented."I'm not going to campaign over 226 square miles for this position."

Vol. 19, Issue 11, Page 5

Published in Print: November 10, 1999, as Citing Imbalance, Judge Stops School Board Election in Pa.
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