Trial in suit against Ferguson-Florissant district to begin

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Problems with racial bias have already led to reforms of Ferguson's police department and municipal court. Next week, attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union will argue in federal court that a school district serving Ferguson students also needs an overhaul of the process for electing board members.

A federal trial starts Monday in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of the Missouri NAACP and three residents who live within the Ferguson-Florissant School District in north St. Louis County.

The suit alleges that the district's practice of selecting the seven school board members at-large makes it more difficult for black candidates to win election.

It was filed in December 2014, just months after 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, was fatally shot during a street confrontation with white Ferguson officer Darren Wilson. A St. Louis County grand jury declined to charge Wilson, who resigned in November 2014.

Brown's death led to several protests, was a catalyst in the national Black Lives Matter movement and prompted a federal investigation into the city's police department and municipal court. The U.S. Department of Justice's scathing report, released in March, led to the resignations of Ferguson's city manager, police chief and municipal judge, and resulted in several police and court reforms.

The Ferguson-Florissant School District serves about 12,000 students in parts of 11 municipalities. While the residents of the district are nearly evenly split between black and white, 77 percent of students are black, in part because many white parents send their kids to private and parochial schools.

Five of the district's seven board members are white. Members serve staggered three-year terms and are chosen at-large in April elections.

The ACLU believes the process violates the Voting Rights Act, and blacks would be better served by election by ward or subdistrict.

"Under the circumstances of this district, at-large voting has the effect of diluting African-American votes and making it more difficult for them to elect candidates of their choice," according to ACLU attorney Tony Rothert said.

In a statement, school district attorney Cindy Ormsby said Ferguson-Florissant's practice of electing board members at-large mirrors that of most districts in Missouri and does not violate the Voting Rights Act.

"On the contrary, we will show that the Ferguson-Florissant School District has a long history of African-American representation under the existing rules," she said, while election by district would be a significant setback for black candidates "and undermine the ability of the School Board to do its job."

The trial is expected to last about a week, Rothert said.

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