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Law & Courts

District’s At-Large Elections Violated Minority Voting Rights, Federal Appeals Court Finds

By Mark Walsh — January 07, 2021 3 min read
Image of people at voting booths.

A federal appeals court on Wednesday upheld a trial court’s ruling that at-large school board elections in a New York state school district violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because they dilute the voting power of Black and Latino residents.

The decision comes in a case involving the East Ramapo Central School District, which has some 8,800 students and covers large Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish populations that send about 29,000 students to private religious schools.

At the heart of the case are findings that two local rabbis and other leaders in the Orthodox community have long recruited and slated candidates for election to the nine-member East Ramapo school board and that the board often served the interests of the private school community. Although some minority candidates have been slated by the Orthodox leaders and elected, they were not the preferred candidates of minority voters in the district, court papers say.

“The record is replete with evidence that the private-school [community]-run board was chronically unresponsive to public-school concerns,” says the Jan. 6 decision in Clerveaux v. East Ramapo Central School District by a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City.

The resident population of the East Ramapo district is described in court papers as 65.7 percent white, 19.1 percent Black, 10.7 percent Latino, and 3.3 percent Asian.

Minority candidates won seven out of 32 contested board elections from 2005 to 2018, but from 2008 to 2018, the only minority candidates who won did so with the support of the Orthodox organization, court papers say. Thus, according to the voting-rights lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the NAACP and other plaintiffs, minority residents were not able to elect their preferred candidates.

In 2014, a state-appointed monitor investigated the board’s activities and found that the “board appears to favor the interests of private schools over public schools.”

For example, the 2nd Circuit panel said, the board closed two public schools over minority opposition and “made a sweetheart deal with a yeshiva to sell it one of the closed schools at a discounted price.”

The board also made accommodations at its meetings for Yiddish-speaking parents but not for Spanish-speaking parents, resulting in New York state issuing a corrective action plan, court papers say.

‘Significant Control’ of Slating Process

The 2nd Circuit court upheld the district court’s reliance on data from the plaintiffs’ voting rights expert over that of the defendants’ expert. The district court concluded that the Black and Latino communities in the school district were politically cohesive and that the white majority votes as a bloc in board elections such that no minority-preferred candidate won a contested election since 2008.

The racially polarized voting in the district elections could not be explained by differences in policy preferences, the district court had ruled. The 2nd Circuit held that voting for private-school friendly policies was a proxy for race in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

“Those policies favorable to the private-school community come at the cost of the public-school community,” the appeals court said. “It defies reality to say that those who vote for private-school-friendly policies would be ignorant that the brunt of these policies is borne by minority children.”

The 2nd Circuit panel said the Orthodox organization’s failure to conduct open calls for candidates, the necessity for inside connections to be slated, the vetting process, and the use of only “safe” or politically or legally expedient minority candidates, all support the finding that minority candidates and residents were denied meaningful access to the slating process.

“These facts underscore the significant control of the white private-school leaders over the slating process, which worked to exclude minority interests and viewpoints from the slate and ultimately the board,” the court said.

The 2nd Circuit upheld the district court’s injunction barring any board elections under the at-large system pending the resolution of the case. In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs’ asked for a single-member district system for election board members, but it is not clear whether that remedy has been ordered or might come after further proceedings.

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